Coffee shop chess club a big hit

Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2003

Every Saturday at Kaladi Brothers Coffee in Soldotna, a competition as intense as a triple shot of espresso on an empty stomach is waged.

At least that's the impression someone may get from the handful of figures huddled intently over chess boards. Nothing breaks their concentration not the chatter of coffee shop patrons seeking their caffeine fix for the day, the jarring metallic clang of the till as money changes hands or even the deafening hisses and gurgles exploding from the espresso machine that's less than 10 feet away.

It's a serious bunch, indeed. At least until another player comes in and is welcomed with invitations to play the next match, and good-natured threats of how badly they're going to get beaten in that day's games.

Sound a little juvenile? Well, the players doing the threatening are kids, though they display attention spans that far exceed their years as evidenced by their ability to concentrate on the mentally exacting game of chess amid the hubbub of a bustling coffee shop.

About eight such players make up the core of the chess club that meets at Kaladi Brothers every Saturday from 12:30 to 4 p.m.

Though the games look intense at times, they're really all for fun, and played by people both children and adults who share a common interest in the game of chess.

"There's no tricks, no dice, no cards; I make a move, you make a move and see what happens," said Mike Beck, a Kaladi Brothers employee who started the club in September.

Some of the players have been cultivating their interest in the game longer than others. Joseph Fuoco of Soldotna, who founded the club with Beck, said he's been playing since he was little. He grew up in Anchorage and used to play people in local coffee shops. One day he met a Russian man who was a master at the game, who proceeded to teach Fuoco the intricacies of the game. He's been playing ever since and competes in chess tournaments.

"I view chess like mental boxing," he said. "... I like the fighting element of the game. Chess makes me sweat more than any sport."

His first opponent Saturday, Aaron Warta of Soldotna, has been playing the game for a considerably shorter amount of time. Aaron said he learned chess four years ago. He is now all of 8 years old, but can hold his own against other kids and adults.

"Aaron has beaten most of the adults," said Stan Warta, Aaron's father. "Not that they can't beat him, but he beats them right back."

Aaron said he thought the game was easy to play, and that he learned it in a week.

"As good as he is, I would believe it," Fuoco added.

Sitting next to Aaron that day, concentrating on a game of his own, was Aaron's older brother, Christian Warta, 12. The two are regulars at the Saturday chess club and compete in tournaments. They both competed at one in April, a Scholastic, kindergarten-through-sixth-grade chess tournament in Anchorage, where Christian placed third in the sixth-grade division and 15th overall and Aaron placed fifth overall.

Christian said he and Aaron learned how to play after their dad got him a nice chess board for Christmas a few years ago.

Stan Warta said he taught the boys the game because he thought it would be good for their thinking processes.

"Basically, it's teaching them another discipline, like 'pick up your socks,'" Stan Warta said. "... Now they beat me, so now I don't play anymore."

Christians's first opponent Saturday was Dylan Tucker, also 12. Dylan went to the same tournament the Wartas did, and placed first.

Dylan said his dad taught him the game about four or five years ago.

"I like the strategy," he said. "It makes your brain work."

Dylan, Aaron and Christian all said they hadn't gotten tired of the game and expected to keep playing it. The Warta family is moving to Kentucky soon, and Aaron and Christian said they hope to find another chess club to join that is as fun as the one that meets at Kaladi Brothers.

This sense of camaraderie and the chance to meet new people with similar interests is a big draw of the club, as is the laid-back atmosphere of the games.

"It's way more relaxed than a tournament," Fuoco said. "It doesn't matter who wins or loses in the coffee shop."

Well, maybe not to him, but for the younger players a win can be a big deal if it's against an adult.

"The kids like to get to beat an adult," Stan Warta said. "It's like beating Sir Lancelot. It's like everything. They really enjoy it when an adult shows up, especially ones they can beat."

Don't let the competitiveness of some of the players be deceiving, however, since the club really is for anyone who wants to play, no matter what age or experience level they are.

"If you've only played for a day or 50 years anybody's welcome," Fuoco said.

He added that new players interested in the club should bring a chess set with them if they have one.

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