Chess prodigy checks competition

“Checkmate,” says Khaled Bagh, Class of 2018, as he flashes a friendly smile while pushing his queen forward to win yet another chess match. His vanquished opponent doesn’t seem unhappy at all either, smiling right back through the obligatory handshake. After all, very few people who go up against the 18-year-old actually hope to win.

“He’s annoyingly good,” said Saksham Basu, Class of 2019, another of Woodstock’s small chess community. “No one who goes up against him can expect to win. At best, they can provide an ‘okay’ warm up.”

According to the International Federation of Chess (FIDE), he’s rated 1948, a Class A player, in the 97th percentile of competitive chess players worldwide.

Considering the heights he has reached, as well as his reputation, it’s quite surprising to learn that Bagh started the game rather casually. “My brother went to a school chess competition and got beaten badly.” he said, “So, he joined a chess club, and I just tagged along.”

The young Syrian quickly became hooked to “the game of kings” and has now kept it up consistently for several years. Even after the devastating civil war took hold in his country, and many other parts of Bagh’s life came under severe restrictions, he still kept going to chess club.

“My life became simple; school, to chess club, to home,” he said. “Chess club was the only thing different from my normal routine, the only place where I could feel like I was achieving anything.”

Speaking to Bagh, it’s clear that chess has become an important part of his life, and he’s very serious about keeping up his game. Here at Woodstock, he said he likes school and feels at home with his friends and classmates. But his chess experience hasn’t been quite as positive. He said, “My chess (skills) got bad when I came here. I had no real contact with players of high level. This school hasn’t really paid attention to chess in general.”

Mr. Santos, leader of the chess passage (which Bagh is a part of) said, “There’s definitely a gap in terms of the attention paid to chess in the school. It’s a very niche interest right now, and I’m working to expand that, and draw attention to it.”

There is some irony here because India is widely regarded as the original home of chess, from where the game eventually spread to Persia and then to Bagh’s home country of Syria. Today, this sport based on intelligence and strategy is recognized by the International Olympic Committee, as well as over 100 countries.

India, in particular, is a chess capital, with a huge crop of world-famous players, most notable of which is the repeated men’s world champion (and current world number two) Vishwanathan Anand. Right behind him are many young players with very bright futures, like 27-year-old Abhijeet Gupta, who won the Commonwealth Championship in July of this year.

Given the context, it seems strange that Woodstock has waited so long to actually work on developing the sport at school — especially since it has hosted a player of high caliber like Bagh (who graduates in May). “The chess community in Woodstock has been working hard to get noticed,”  he said,  “but until now, there has been little interest from the school.”

However, this has not been a reason for him to get dismayed. Bagh said he has plans to pursue his chess passion after graduation, ”if the place I go to for college has a good chess program in the area, I might even take a gap year and just pursue chess.”

He is applying to several colleges in the United States and Britain (mainly to study engineering), including Duke University — a college known for the prestige of its chess teams, which compete in major competitions and has produced famous players like Anna Levina, who won first place in the Pan American Intercollegiate Tournament in 2007.

Bagh has hopes of one day becoming a Grandmaster, the highest rank possible, that every chess player aspires to. “Only two Syrians have ever held the Grandmaster title, neither native-born,” he said. “I would be the first.”

Photo by Faisal Qadir

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