Chris Wong (left) cheers against opponent Rob Hart in the teachers' bracket – even though Wong ultimately lost. Megan Miskiman/Cabin Radio
“I won’t call it luck, because it’s chess, but my opponent got a cheeky checkmate. I’m actually really salty because I could have had that, if I just paid more attention.”
Jake Son is still processing after narrowly missing the podium in a clash of Yellowknife high schools across one of the oldest battlefields the world has known: chess boards.
École Sir John Franklin High School and École St Patrick High School went head-to-head on Wednesday. St Pat’s are the new champions, but only after a sensational series of twists, turns, triumphs and tantrums.
Tafadzwa Mufandaedza, a Grade 12 student at St Pat’s, received funding from Northern Youth Abroad to purchase chess boards for schools around Yellowknife. The tournament was a consequence of the boards turning up.
“Everyone loves chess. There is never a time when a chess game isn’t going on at some point during the day here,” said Mufandaedza.
“I wanted to make it so that people could compete for prizes and play in a more competitive way, without it being a physical sport, but a mental sport – which we don’t do often.”
Over the past two weeks, both schools held tournaments for their own students and staff. The best players advanced to the inter-school finals, held at St Pat’s.
Son, a Grade 10 student, went into Wednesday’s finale feeling confident, even after finishing second to Nico Salvador at his school’s tournament the week before.
“I blundered my queen, so I lost it in a big mistake,” said Son of that result – a blunder being a chess term for an unusually bad decision, as well as a self-explanatory way to refer to everything going wrong.
“It was easy,” said Salvador.
“I didn’t think Jake would blunder a move, but he did. He was a good opponent but, overall, I’m just the better player. I cooked him.
“I’m a bit nervous for the finals, but not really, because I haven’t lost a single round yet.”
With that kind of build-up, how could the finals disappoint?
Well, for a start, two players argued with each other because they both wanted to lose so they could “go home and eat food” (said while eating pizza provided by tournament sponsor Territorial Beverages).
But despite the occasional lapse in competitive spirit, there were some dramatic contests.
Proceedings proved harder than expected for Salvador, who finished second in tier two – the lower-grade tier, in which players found themselves if they lost in tier one.
“I’m so mad,” said Salvador after his defeat. “I thought I was going to win, and then I lost my queen on the third move.” (In chess, unintentionally losing your queen within three moves of the start is often quite difficult.)
In one match, Salvador found himself stuck between a queen, a rook and a hard place. Unable to decide where to move, the clock ran out before he could complete his turn, resulting in an automatic loss.
Tier two’s champion was another St Pat’s student, Samien Sarwar, who said he had been playing chess since he was a child. Even with a gold medal, he thought he could have done better.
“It was good. It was fun,” he said. “But I wish I won tier one, not tier two.”
Winning tier one was Sir John’s Byran Clinton, an 11th-grader who, like Sarwar, seemed somehow still unimpressed with his win.
“I don’t know, I guess thought I’d feel different,” Clinton philosophically told Cabin Radio.
“I thought I’d be more excited, or happier. But I guess I wasn’t really surprised.”
Unlike those who had been playing chess almost their whole lives, Clinton only started playing in October. Even so, coming into Wednesday’s matches, he said he felt untroubled.
“I didn’t think they’d be that good,” he said of his rivals.
“At the same time, I didn’t want to say that – in case they destroyed me. But they didn’t.”
Second to Clinton was Sahal Malin. Third place in tier one was taken by Gabriel Fabros of St Pat’s, with an honourable mention to Son, who said he was happy to finish fourth in tier one, as it placed him above Salvador.
On the way, Son came through what he described as the most intense game of chess he has ever experienced. With 15 seconds left on his clock, he chased his opponent’s king around the board before finally locking it in a corner to secure checkmate.
“I still had to fight to get him into a position he couldn’t move from,” Son said, “and I didn’t have a lot of time left. It was so intense.”
In the teachers’ contest, St Pat’s classroom assistant Miguel Letain won tier one, defeating math and science teacher John Roche.
“I wasn’t necessarily expecting to win, but I was expecting to play John,” Letain said.
“Once we got to that point, it really could have gone either way. He’s beaten me before, so I wasn’t sure, but it ended up going my way in the end.”
“It’s OK,” said Roche. “Second still feels good.”
Physical education teacher Rob Hart took third place in the first tier. Second-tier staff winner was Chris Wong, followed by Matthew Mitchell and Travis Maurice.
With the winners decided, you might imagine this cerebral event reaching a sedate close with the inevitable medals, prizes and a banner for the winning school.
But the result shocked everyone.
With Sir John having won both first and second place in tier one, most of the remaining audience assumed the banner would be awarded to the Falcons.
However, a series of first-round forfeits meant St Pat’s outscored Sir John by 118 points to 62, despite having no representation in the top-tier final. (Those forfeits? Eight Sir John students failed to show up.)
“It’s just the way it goes,” Mufandaedza told a number of students who immediately attempted to appeal the result.
“You should’ve told them to show up, then maybe you’d have gotten the banner.”
Aside from the no-shows, Mufandaedza felt satisfied with her organizing efforts. Northern Youth Abroad’s funding also enabled her to reward winners with chess boards as prizes.
“I’m very happy,” she said as she signed the chess banner that will hang at St Pat’s.
“I wasn’t expecting this but, because of the sponsors, we were able to make it a big thing that students wanted to be a part of.
“To be totally honest, I was expecting Sir John to win, but the fact that we’re getting the banner makes me really happy. It’s nice to sign it, knowing it’ll hang with all the sports banners here.”