PIONEER PRESS: Mount Prospect

Love of chess sweeter the second time


August 16, 2007

Like any competitor at his age, Vince Hart should be long out of his prime. A body half a century old should not be providing him with the top performances of his life. Yet, his greatest triumph came about a year ago, and he made a notable conquest last month. The team he coaches at Prospect High School is also on the rise, and he is mulling throwing himself into the mix in the September state championship.

One might not think this, but chess is a young man’s game. Mount Prospect’s finest defies the norm.

“One thing I do enjoy is that at the age of 50, I’m still improving,” Hart said.

Maybe it’s because of that 20-year break he took: Maybe he saved his mind’s strength.

“It requires a great deal of physical energy,” he said of chess at the highest level. “The serious games can be five and six hours long, and you have to sit and concentrate and focus for that amount of time.”

The U.S. Chess Federation awarded Hart its third-highest ranking, expert, last fall. Chicagoland is home to many experts and a handful of masters and grandmasters; while he knows he is respected in powerful company, Hart said he knows what his limits currently are.

“When I watch the top-rated players play, I need somebody to explain to me what’s going on,” he said.

Thus, he is still mulling an entry into the 2007 Illinois Open Championship. With a championship highly unlikely, he said he will probably focus on recruiting for PHS’ club – he would rather teach others to win than experience a loss himself.

“There are enough stronger players that I don’t think I really intimidate that many people,” he said.

Hart scored a nice little win July 24 at the Mount Prospect Public Library, when he used subtlety and the distraction of 18 other competitors to beat Ilya Korzhenevich, a US Junior Master. Korzhenevich was at the library to play a “simul,” several games at the same time against everyone who showed up.

Hart was at the library looking for PHS students to make Knights out of. He said he knew that Korzhenevich was a better player and that facing him in a simul would be a poor gauge of his own skill.

“But there was an open board,” he said. “I couldn’t resist sitting down and playing.”

Hart said he set a trap as the game developed, using his knight and rook to corner Korzhenevich ‘s bishop. Korzhenevich ended up resigning from the game – he realized that Hart would soon have his bishop, which had become his only defense for his king.

“I got him into a game where he had to do a lot of calculating, and because he’s going board to board, he didn’t have the time to do that,” Hart said. Last year, Korzhenevich beat more than 30 foes at the MPPL. This year, he fell to Hart alone.

“Given the fact that he was playing 20 guys, I was really at kind of an advantage,” Hart said. “I didn’t consider it that big a deal. Only once have I ever beat that strong a player one-on-one.”

That being last summer, when he stopped Chikware Onyekwere, the champion of Nigeria. In 2003, Hart faced his toughest foe ever – Garry Kasparov, the world champion at that time, in a simul.

“He slaughtered me,” Hart said. And Hart does not take losing well.

His older brother, Jim, taught him to play, and he would join the chess club at Highland Park High School in the early 1970s. He attended DePaul University after graduation, but none of his club partners followed.

“So I drifted away from the game,” he said. Twenty years went by, he married Theresa and they raised some children.

One night in 1996, hanging out with some friends in the basement of St. Raymond’s Church, a chess game broke out. He jumped in.

“They made me look like an idiot,” he confessed. “I was blundering, I was losing pieces, it was very sad.”

And that put his attention back on chess.

“I didn’t like losing,” he said. “I guess it got my competitive fires going again.”

Hart still had all his old chess strategy books – and he now had an hour-and-a-half train commute. But rebuilding his skill would take more time than that, and Theresa was willing to compromise: She had become interested in community theater, so the two covered each other’s responsibilities when a tournament or a play came up.

“I have friends whose wives are not at all understanding of their addiction to chess,” he said.

But through his 40s, when the average competitor is looking at his glory days in the rear-view mirror, Hart gained stature.

“All the top players in the world are in their 20s or 30s,” he said. While far from a world-class player, Hart said he was proud of his unusual ascent to national ranking.

This fall, he might test his mettle in the state competition, but his focus is on the PHS club. Maybe, he says, he can find a kid who is on the traditional road to chess success.

Hart began coaching the club six years ago, and they posted their worst season three years ago, 0-10. Fortune changed rapidly from there, he said, as a couple of serious players rose up and lead the Knights to a 9-2 season this spring and a third-place finish in the Mid Suburban League.

“It’s not like football or baseball, where you can make them practice,” he said. “This year, we had quite a few players who were willing to do that.” Most of whom were seniors, he said, now graduates.

“I’m not sure who’s going to be the top player next year,” Hart said. “It’s going to be a whole new dynamic.”

Hart said he hopes to teach his players how to improve their games. Even at his age and experience level, his own is.