On the second floor of Borders, at the meeting of a local chess club, one mention of Jeremy Kane’s name turns heads. Yeah, I’m assured, the men there know him.
Is he good at chess?
“Oh, he’s strong,” one man says, looking back at his pieces. “Strong like Ajax.”
Ask around the U of C and Hyde Park chess circles and you will hear that same assessment over and over. Among students in particular, questions about Kane bring out the superlatives: “best,” “strongest,” “quickest.”
A second-year, Kane is the current intramural chess champion and finished tied for first in April’s University of Chicago tournament, which was open to players not affiliated with the University. At the U of C Chess Club, where he serves as captain and vice president, Kane’s position in the pecking order seems clear.
“I might be the second best player at the school [or] in Hyde Park,” said fourth-year Marcel Knudsen, another of the area’s top players, “but I’m significantly weaker than Jeremy at chess and also don’t have the same commitment and knowledge.”
Well before arriving in Hyde Park, Kane was an accomplished player. As a junior and senior in high school, he won the overall Wisconsin championship, and in 2005 he was part of a four-man high school team that finished third at the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) SuperNationals.
The tournament success has boosted Kane’s Elo rating (the rating scale, which provides a standardized means of comparing chess players, is named after Arpad Elo, its inventor and another Wisconsin state champion). The USCF lists Kane’s June 2009 rating as 2,183, 17 points shy of the National Master cutoff. For comparison, beginners would rate below 1,000, and the best players of all time have gone above 2,800.
Kane doesn’t remember just when his father taught him to play, but his interest in the game took off in sixth grade, when he met Alex Betaneli, the reigning Wisconsin champion and coach of a local high school chess team. Kane began attending the team’s meetings and working with Betaneli.
In a way, chess seems to run in Kane’s family. His older brother was also on Betaneli’s team, and his father had played in some chess tournaments. “But I’ve taken it more seriously than either of them,” Kane said. So could he beat them now?
Kane didn’t pause for even a moment: “Yes.”
Besides working with the high school chess team, Kane took some private lessons, solved chess puzzles, and analyzed previous games on his own, and those who have seen him play say his work is evident.
“He’s studied the game,” said Sam Harvard, who goes to the meetings at Borders and has watched Kane play. “He knows those 64 squares.”
If there has been a culmination of Kane’s efforts, it was in the next-to-last round of his first state championship win. There, Kane was matched with his coach, Betaneli, who was again the reigning champion, and had beaten Kane in their previous tournament meetings. Kane called it the “most stressful big game” of his life.
“I didn’t actually beat him that time, I drew,” Kane said, but he was leading Betaneli beforehand, and the draw helped secure the title.
In his time playing chess, Kane has picked up a few other stories, not all of them so dramatic as the showdown with his coach.
Earlier this year, U.S. Chess Championship winner and chess grandmaster Yury Shulman (Elo rating: 2,715) came to the University and simultaneously played more than 40 opponents. Of those, two—including Knudsen—beat Shulman, and Kane drew. Everyone else lost.
“[Shulman] probably spent a total of two or three minutes against me,” Kane said.
Then there was the shoeless opponent.
“I played some guy in a tournament one time who was trying to set some world record for time not wearing shoes, or something like that. It was a little odd,” Kane said, without mentioning if he won or lost.
Once, in a game Kane expected to win easily, the opponent opened with a curiously confrontational tactic.
“He made a big point of pointing his knights toward me, so the horses were facing me,” Kane said. “And then he almost beat me, and we ended up tying.”
Since then, Kane admitted, he has done the same with his own knights. And while he allowed that there are some colorful characters in the chess world, Kane said most chess players are perfectly normal, stereotypes notwithstanding.
“You don’t have to be crazy to play chess,” Kane said.
Besides that, he dismissed much of the aura that surrounds chess. Kane said the game had little to do with intelligence or personal traits, and he doesn’t think chess works as a metaphor for anything else.
“I don’t like it when the football game commentators are saying it’s a chess game going on, because when you’re playing chess, you don’t think of it as a football game,” Kane said.
Still, Kane said the game isn’t entirely different from the other programming more commonly seen on ESPN. He had a brief stint on the Chicago cross-country team, and he likened team chess to other sports that straddle the team-individual divide.
But when asked if the similarity was enough to make chess itself a sport, Kane held back.
“If your real definition of a sport is the physical aspect, it’s not like chess is the same as football. But if you want competition, it’s just as competitive, and I don’t see why it’s less of a sport than golf, or pool, or NASCAR.”
Chess Club meets Mondays 6–8 p.m. and Fridays 4–6 p.m. in Hutch.