Winning the ‘battle of minds’

A single game of chess can last longer than a final exam. And making just one move can take far longer than answering the toughest of questions.

Once, during a chess tournament, Matthew Blake took 45 minutes to strategize and settle on a move. The game lasted more than four hours and, while waiting for Blake to make a decision, his opponent fell asleep.

Blake, a fifth-year History and Criminology student at Western, is among the university’s best chess players. He’s played the game since the tender age of five, mastering it in grade school, when he first started winning tournaments.

Matthew Blake, a fifth-year History and Criminology student at Western, is among the university’s best chess players.

Adela Talbot // Western NewsMatthew Blake, a fifth-year History and Criminology student at Western, is among the university’s best chess players.

“My dad always pushed me; I had that head start advantage, I guess,” Blake laughed. “I played a lot up until Grade 8 and I did well. I won the London City Championship for my age a few times when I was in Grades 6, 7 and 8.

However cerebral the game, for a child, chess was great training, he added. There’s so much to learn beyond the rules. For years, Blake has been studying openings, patterns and tactics, as well as different combinations and opponent moves that can come as a result from every move he makes on the board.

“It’s like any type of subject you study in school. There’s a lot of theory involved and it takes a lot of hours of practice and studying theory to be good,” he explained.

The skills that come with playing chess – and playing it well – easily transfer to the classroom, Blake added. The game requires a lot of memorization, imagination and visualization. There are hundreds of ways to open a game, and each opening might have up to 15 different sequences. At the outset of every game, Blake knows at least the first 5-10 moves he will make. If you’re not skilled at chess, he won’t need many more to take you down.

Last month, when Western hosted the 2017 Canadian University Chess Championships, an annual tournament that brings together the best chess players (students and faculty members) from campuses across the country, Blake was the top player and team captain in one of two sections of Western’s team. Though Western did not win this year, Blake’s team performed well, losing only one game.

“I had stopped playing chess in high school, altogether. You get caught up in things, and there wasn’t a chess club. But a year or two ago, at Western, I stumbled upon the Chess Club booth during Clubs Week. I got back into it, and I got the bug, even though my rating at the time didn’t reflect my skill level,” Blake said.

Chess players who play competitively are rated by ability, with the current world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, holding a rating of about 2,800. Blake currently sits in the 1,700s and continues to work on his skill level, studying the game and learning from other players.

“It’s a lot of fun. There’s a big competitive aspect, and the competition is just like any other sport. In tournaments, you will play some people rated higher and some people rated lower,” he said. “When you play someone lower, you’re risking your rating a lot because you have a lot to lose and not a lot to gain. But it’s nice when you play harder people because you have a lot to gain, a little bit to lose, and it’s good experience.”

It’s a “battle of minds,” Blake noted. Putting so much effort into studying and practicing the game, when a win comes, the payoff is great and losing is hard. It’s especially frustrating in those games that go on forever, he said.

“The hardest part about it is probably blundering, making a mistake deep into the game, after 2, 3, 4 hours and the whole effort is lost. It can be mental torture at times, but when you win the game after four hours, it makes it all worth it; it’s a euphoria.”

With hopes of going to law school, Blake looks to continue playing chess on the side. It’s rewarding, fun and not at all what some might expect, he added.

“A lot of people think chess players are very geeky. They have a negative air about chess, and when you tell some people about it, they just don’t understand. They ask, ‘That’s a thing?’ But the stereotypes aren’t true. And when people hear about it, they’re impressed. It’s a wonderful game.”