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Inside Events: The US Chess Federation

8 Oct, 2021

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
An Interview with Pete Karagianis, Assistant Director of Events

new.uschess.org

The US Chess Federation (US Chess) is the official governing body and nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization for chess players and chess supporters in the United States. Its mission is to empower people, enrich lives, and enhance communities through chess. Its vision is that chess is recognized as an essential tool that is inclusive, benefits education and rehabilitation, and promotes recreation and friendly competition.

US Chess represents the United States in the World Chess Federation (FIDE), connecting members to chess players around the world. Founded in 1939 with the merger of the American Chess Federation and the National Chess Federation, US Chess has grown to serve over 93,000 members and 2,000 affiliated chess clubs and organizations today.

Every year, US Chess sanctions and rates over 10,000 tournaments and over half a million games. The organization hosts over 25 National Championships and awards titles to both amateurs and professionals, ranging from elementary school students to senior citizens.

Sports Destination Management: Did chess, like jigsaw puzzles, benefit from a lot of people taking it up (or returning to it) in quarantine?

Pete Karagianis: Yes, and I think the numbers very clearly bear that out – we saw a huge surge in chess activity and chess players. Several factors played into that; during the pandemic, people were at home and maybe they played with their family in person – but they were also playing online. One of the cool things about chess is it’s a way for people to interact socially.

Another part of the growth was the release of the Netflix show, The Queen’s Gambit; it made chess really cool. When the show was released, we started seeing an increase in the online activity that tracks daily games and we realized that literally millions of games were being played. It thrust the sport back into the limelight.

SDM: Did the move to online chess, rather than in-person chess, affect you?

Karagianis: It presented us with the opportunity to be creative. We know there were a lot of online tournaments, and a lot of people who played online, before the pandemic; once the nation went into lockdown, we had no choice but to move our own events online as well. Our in-person events were obviously cancelled because when you think about it, chess really checked all the boxes for things you couldn’t do in person: it was indoors, you were in close proximity to others – it was not uncommon for 2,000 to 3,000 people to be present in one hotel ballroom, plus parents, coaches and officials – and a lot of the adult players are older. All that meant there was no way we could run in-person events. Putting events online was the only thing we really could do.

SDM: There were only a few sports that grew in 2020; some were outdoor pursuits but SCRABBLE®, jigsaw puzzles and esports were also big growth sectors because obviously you could do those from home.

Karagianis: Oddly enough, esports was another reason for our growth; more people were finding out about the opportunities to compete online and to stay connected with others. Chess streamers became incredibly popular as well; Levy Rozman, for example, whose online identity is Gotham Chess, has more than more than a million followers on YouTube. Things like that have really contributed to the chess boom.

SDM: Do you think all that growth will continue?

Karagianis: There’s really no way of knowing but we have seen some examples of that growth continuing. There have been a few – not many but a few – large-scale tournaments held since reopening, and they’ve reported between a 50 to 60 percent increase in attendance. We might see the trend peter out as restrictions ease and lockdowns are listed, or we might not see that. Obviously, we hope people will stay with the sport; they seem to be interested.

SDM: It’s great to know people are streaming the sport.

Karagianis: Chess really lends itself to streaming. When you watch someone play at a really high level, it’s like you’re living inside their mind for that game. As a strong player myself, I find the entertainment value is high, but the educational value is even higher.

SDM: In a regular (non-pandemic) season, what events would you put on?

Karagianis: The full list is on our website but one of our main events is Super Nationals. Kids from all grades, from kindergarten through high school, compete there. They compete against others in their grade and age groups. We also put on our US Open, as well as other events.

SDM: How many events does Super Nationals draw?

Karagianis: Just under 6,000 players, plus coaches, school administrators, parents and others. It is becoming harder and harder to find a ballroom big enough to host the event.

SDM: Any ideas on the economic impact, or on the room night usage?

Karagianis: We average out to about 500 room nights at a normal, non-super nationals event, such as the National HS tournament. Supernationals room pickup is between 2500-2700 rooms/night. Our K-12 (yearly) event also goes north of 1000 rooms/night during the main tournament days.

?SDM: What do you look for in a destination to host events?

Karagianis: We need enough space to host competitions. Something we’ve discovered is that every one person who comes will bring 2.5 people with them so obviously, a big enough space is the most important thing. We look for a place that has not just competition space but rooms for side events and presentations, as well as team rooms, should any team want to have their own space.

We want kids to be able to play, no matter what their income level, so we look for places that can help us reduce the economic barrier to attend, as much as we can. Obviously, a variety of hotels in different price points is important because we have kids from every sort of school coming – homeschooled kids, private school kids, even kids from schools in inner cities. One thing we really look for is places that are connected by walkways so that you don’t have kids crossing busy streets to get where they need to be to play, or to their hotel rooms.

We also look for a destination that has restaurants and attractions for people to use during their downtime since often, people want to make a vacation of it. Our next Super Nationals – held every four years – will be held at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando in 2025 and I am certain families will come to that.

SDM: How many room nights do you use at Super Nationals?

Karagianis: I’d say about 500 room nights at our host hotel. It’s very common for the host hotel to sell out, so we will pick out overflow properties if we need them.

SDM: Obviously, with in-person events, it is easier to monitor and cut down on the possibility of cheating but how do you do that in an online tournament?

Karagianis: When you’re doing in-person tournaments, you have what we call orbiters walking around the room and looking at how games are being played. Online, it’s a big challenge; it’s easy for someone not to play fairly. We were using existing online platforms and one of the first things we did was examine the different monitoring services that helped ensure fair play. There are programs you can use that can help you win a game but we’re looking at the games that have been played by particular players, and at the data the monitoring service is giving us. With all the qualifying tournaments people are going through to get to the championship, it’s almost like they’re passing through filters. They can’t get all the way through if they’re cheating.

SDM: Running a chess tournament sounds like a lot more work than people think.

Karagianis: Chess is a fascinating subculture, and running a tournament is one of the most fascinating things about it. The sport takes discipline and work, and it also takes someone who is strong enough, mentally and physically, to develop the strategy to win.

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