Category: Archive

The white knight

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Weary or not, they sit up straighter at their desks when the teacher walks into the room bearing a milk crate full of plastic bags and what seems like rolls of folded parchment tucked under his chin.
John Gallagher hits the classroom floor at a run. He’s well aware that you have to grab hold of flagging attention spans at this time of day. The next trick is to hold on to them for best part of an hour.
Not easy. And certainly less easy still in this overstimulated day and age. But Gallagher’s ally in focusing the eyes, ears and minds of the dozen or so occupants of the room is an age-old and time-tested one: chess.
“Today we’re going to talk about something new, a gambit,” Gallagher tells his charges while burrowing into the crate.
Out come bags of chess pieces. The rolled up parchment turns out to be chessboards with one of them being a wall hanging version.
Gallagher, a music teacher in St. Augustine’s school in Ossining, N.Y., teaches chess to kids after school, mostly to fourth and fifth graders. This class is being held in Claremont, part of the Westchester town’s public schools system.
Gallagher currently has about half a dozen schools and daycare centers on his visiting list and could take on more if time permitted.
Gallagher sells the idea of learning chess as a diversion for kids from the constant diet of television and videos that is the daily lot of today’s tike.
But his obvious passion for the game is a clincher. After an hour’s lesson with Gallagher, you’ll be wanting to have a cut at Gary Kasparov. Well, maybe after a few hours.
Gallagher, a New Yorker whose father, Sean, is from Dromahair, Co. Leitrim, starts the class by checking the level of attention in the room. He sets up the wall board with a deliberate error contained in the setting out of the pieces.
The deliberate mistake is duly spotted. A hand shoots up and a possible future grand master says that a white queen is on the wrong square.
The class is focused now. Gallagher, rapid fire, launches into a dissertation on the necessity of not judging a game of chess entirely by immediate appearances on the board.
“Just because you have more pieces doesn’t mean you have better position or you are winning,” he says.
Furrowed eyebrows in the audience.
“And sometimes just because a piece is apparently lost easily does not mean that the player who loses the piece is not making a smart move,” he continues.
Hence, the theme of the day, a gambit.
“Chess is not that simple,” Gallagher says. The kids have already figured that out.
“Isn’t chess about controlling the center?” Gallagher asks. “Yes,” comes the concerted reply.
And repeat after me,” he says, “a knight on the rim is grim.” Back comes the chorus line. The kids are getting into it now. It’s like the warmup talk before a game of football or some other contact sport.
And of course chess is a contact game, replete with forward charges, sideswipes and kicks from the rear.
In deference to a visitor, Gallagher chooses to demonstrate an opening move called the “Irish gambit.”
The Irish gambit, aka the Chicago gambit, or “four knights game,” involves the early sacrifice of a knight in return for just a pawn.
But, as Gallagher had indicated just moments before, in chess, all is not what it seems.
Over the following few moves Gallagher demonstrates how lowly pawns can force the more powerful knights into full retreat.
“The player using the pawns is trying to paralyze his opponent,” he says. “Good chess players attack, attack, attack.”
The game proceeds. The sacrifice of a queen draws murmurs from the kids, who are now concentrating hard on the rollout board.
And finally, the coup de grace. Gasps of appreciation as the charging pawn moves into a checkmate position.
The class goes into its second phase. The rolled up chess boards are unfolded and laid flat on the tables. The pieces are set up and the youngsters pair off to play. Time is of the essence, so they play quickly.
Gallagher moves from table to table, offering advice and not infrequently hinting at the possibility of a decisive move.
“Do you see the checkmate?” he asks one player. The player doesn’t at first but picks up on it a few moments later.
“You’ve missed it,” he says to another player. “You had checkmate in one move. I can’t tell you how many checkmates are being missed,” Gallagher adds in not quite fully mock exasperation to the entire room.
Gallagher sits down at all the tables and takes a turn playing each of his students.
One duo has reached the astonishing situation in just a few minutes of one player being down to just a king with the opponent having numerous pieces left on the board. But by an amazing stroke of luck, the king-only player has managed to achieve a stalemate, without even trying.
Gallagher, who is 30, is clearly a fine chess player but readily admits that he is still learning about the game, even as he teaches it to beginners and novices.
“You don’t have to be super smart or brilliant at math to be good at chess; I was average at math,” Gallagher, who is married and lives in Peekskill,” said at the conclusion of the class.
Gallagher is a graduate of the Westchester Conservatory of Music in White Plains. He specializes in classical guitar and the bass. He is currently rated an expert chess player.
That’s closer to the top than bottom of the chess totem poll for sure, but he still has a long way to go before he can reckon on taking on the really big guns of the game.
In the skills rating system for chess, the bottom rung is a beginner. This is followed by novice, then club player. Above club is expert, Gallagher’s position. Above him is master and higher again is the hallowed ground inhabited by the world’s grand masters.
Higher than even that, in Gallagher’s view, is one man, the Russian Gary Kasparov.
“Becoming a master will be tough,” Gallagher said. “It will take a lot of additional study, but I’m aiming for it.”
Gallagher began playing chess as a kid himself because a friend played and encouraged him to take up the game.
Chess is as popular as ever, he says, though many people are easily intimidated.
“Sure, it’s more complicated than checkers, but learning chess is actually easy,” he said. “I can teach someone to play in 30 or 40 minutes.
“The hard part, of course, is becoming good, but chess is a game like any other. You just need to know the rules.”
What is the quickest way to reach checkmate? Gallagher is asked.
“Four moves,” he said. “I do it all the time with kids. But of course a good player will see that a mile off.”
While chess is a clear alternative for kids to hours in front of a TV or video screen, there has been a merging of one of the oldest of games and new technology in recent years.
In addition to computer chess, Gallagher plays a lot of online chess with opponents around the globe. A few days before this class he had tussled on the internet with a player in South Africa.
Online players chose a screen name for themselves and get to know each other by their online sobriquets. They have a box on the screen in which they can chat about the game or anything else.
Asked what his online name is, Gallagher smiles. “Free Ireland,” he said. “It’s my little political statement.”
A points classification system is used to denote the various levels of chess skill. As an expert, Gallagher has accumulated 2,000 points. Master level is 2,200, while grand master is 2,500.
It will likely take John Gallagher years to rise from expert to master, but that’s just fine by him. Only about 5 percent of chess layers in the world are classed as expert or higher.
“It’s tournament play that decides if you go up to the next level,” he said.
Gallagher is the first member of his family to catch the chess bug, though it may well have been encouraged by the ethnic background of his wife, Danica.
Her roots both reflect John’s own and his passion for a game of 32 competing pieces on a board of 64 squares.
Danica’s family lines go back to Donegal, Mayo and Russia, where chess is a national passion.
Anyone who wants to contact John Gallagher with a view to learning more about chess, Irish American style, can reach him at JGallagherJr@aol.com.

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