So you own a Columbia University sweatshirt—maybe you’ve even worn it to a football game or two. But what can you really say about Columbia’s lesser-known sporting scene? Cue Spotlight on Sports, in which we do the dirty work for you. Wannabe-Che(ss)xpert Ella Quittner hung out with Columbia’s chess club this past week to find out more about what all of the pieces—and players—really do. 

An "action" shot, mid-Bughouse game

Every Wednesday from 10 pm until midnight, about 20 Columbians can be found in a room off of the Lerner ramp, moving very, very little.

From time to time, a player will slap his or her half of a timer clock that tracks the remaining minutes left to make moves in a game. Members’ eyes dart back and forth across the boards in front of them—faces and bodies motionless—planning a next move, or perhaps the one after that. Occasionally, club president Matt Horwitz will pace the room, calmly, taking stock of the player match-ups and the positions of the tiny pieces.

But for much of the two-hour meeting, the room is virtually still.

Which begs the question: is chess a sport?

“Most people here would say that it is,” says Horwitz, a junior in the College who joined the team his freshman year. (When asked whether he led the club more like a queen piece or a king piece, Horwitz responded, “Like a knight, because I move in unusual ways.”)

“Chess is NOT a sport,” chimes in one of the members engaged in an intense round of Bughouse—a faster-paced variation with multiple boards and players that is to traditional chess what Civil War is to Beer Pong.

Another looks up from the other side of the room, and informs me that chess masters burn between 6000 and 7000 calories during one day of tournament—an amount akin to that of an Olympic athlete in training.

Whether or not the strategic calculating, plotting, and planning that these Columbia students spend time perfecting each week fits the traditional bill of a sport, one thing is clear: it’s not your grandpa’s game.

The club is made up of students from CC, SEAS, GS, GSAS, and BC. While most regulars are what Horwitz calls “amateurs” (including himself), the club has a handful of chess masters, which means that they’re ranked either nationally or internationally.

Suffice to say, they’re an intimidating group, in prowess and intellect—but the members are kind and welcoming. One, a GSAS student named Anna who learned to play chess as a child with her grandfather, coerces me into a game. She pretends not to notice when I expose my queen almost immediately, and is encouraging enough to act impressed when I try to use the term “castling.”

Besides their Wednesday meetings, the club members convene quite a bit for lectures, “simuls” (short for short for “simultaneous exhibitions,” where one grandmaster plays a lot of people at once), tournaments, and outreach teaching programs. This year, Columbia’s club tied with UPenn for first place in the annual Inter-Ivy League Tournament.

“We’ve spawned a new idea for an event that we’re going to try to host next year,” says Horwitz. “It’s called ChessFest, and it will basically be a chess-themed carnival on Low Plaza in the spring.”

“I hope that in the future we can work outside of the Columbia community and put our resources to use by helping local underprivileged kids learn chess (and find a positive role model from the players in our club),” he says. “I’ve been thinking about a way to use ChessFest to launch an outreach effort for something like this, but it’s not all there yet.”

In the meantime, the club can be found in their usual place, at the usual time, hopefully not reliving the bad pun I made during my visit about being a “rook.”