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March 25, 2009 > New Fremont Chess Club making a mark

New Fremont Chess Club making a mark

By Gary van den Heuvel
Photos By William Mancebo

It's a Sunday morning in Fremont, and a quiet sense of solemnity envelops those gathered in attendance. An unspoken reverence is shared by the participants in the spacious gathering room. Any words that are spoken are in hushed tones.

Church? No, not church. Well, maybe a different type of church; it's the Hans Poschmann Memorial Chess tournament being held by the New Fremont Chess Club.

The site was the Fremont Adult School on Calaveras Avenue last weekend, as nearly 100 chess players and enthusiasts convened for two days (March 21-22) of tournaments pitting competitors of similar rankings against each other for glory (and cash prizes too).

Ken Zowal is the director of the New Fremont Chess Club, and he has been its director since 2007. Zowal played in tournaments in high school, but he took a "long hiatus from the game." He decided to revive the dormant Fremont Chess Club in 2007, and after getting a lease from the Fremont Cultural Arts Counsel, the New Fremont Chess Club was off and running.

The Hans Poschmann tournament (this being the second holding of the event, the first of which was run last August) is in memory of the man who directed the original Fremont Chess Club.

Poschmann was a German immigrant who came to the United States during the Korean War. A police officer in Germany, he became a craftsman here, expert in cabinet-making. Some of his handiwork, such as old trophies, or a CD cabinet which was awarded in a raffle during the tournament, was on display. Also on display were numerous issues of the self-published periodicals which Poschmann produced to keep the awareness of chess alive in the local community. Poschmann operated the original Fremont Chess Club from 1967 until his death in 2006.

"(The self-published periodicals) were a labor of love for him," said Zowal with obvious admiration. "He was chess in Fremont for several decades.

"The thing about this game," Zowal added, "is that if anything disrupts it, it's a devil of a time getting it back on its feet."

Zowal related the story of two Croatian chess masters who visited Fremont last year to find out how to "rebuild" chess in their home country. Many years of war had destroyed not only the infrastructure but the awareness of chess in their culture. The Croatians studied the operation of the New Fremont Chess Club to use as a model for their homeland.

The tournament drew a wide range of age groups; it wasn't unusual to see an adult in his 40s playing against someone young enough to be his son. Chess does appear to be a male-dominated recreation - there were only two females competing in the Fremont event. One of them, Samyuktai Bhat, will soon be competing in the national girls championship. Tournament director Tom Langland estimates that women make up about 15 percent of the chess community.

Another young phenom competing at the Poschmann Memorial Tournament was 8-year-old Samuel Sevian, who is one of the top-rated children at his age level in the country and has represented the U.S. in international competitions.

Samuel was introduced to the game by his father Armen when he was five. "He took to the game quickly," said Armen. "He's pretty focused. He takes time to evaluate the positions ... he's very analytical. Masters are amazed at the long variations he can produce."

The different tournaments are based on player ratings: the "Open" level is for the highest rankings (over a 2,200 rating; the highest international rating is around 2,800 and Zowal said there were a couple of local players with rankings around 2,300); the "Reserve" tournament is mostly for younger developing players (under a 1,600 rating). The tournament for the lowest-ranking players offers a trophy but no cash prize; Zowal explained that there has in the past been the problem of "ringers," players who claim to be of a low rank in order to capitalize on what they think might be an easy score for cash. Often, these "ringers" are former prisoners.

"You'd be surprised how many good chess players are in prison," said Zowal.

The New Fremont Chess Club's permanent site is the Community Activity Center at 3375 Country Drive in Fremont. The NFCC meets every Friday night from 8 p.m. - midnight.

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