Columbia chess ace takes on all comers

Tuesday, November 20, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Columbia Chess Club president Justin Hull takes on fellow club members at Kaldi's Cafe. Hull has learned how to play chess blindfolded.

COLUMBIA — Nestled in a back corner of Kaldi’s Cafe, Justin Hull demonstrated his talent as a chess player.

He turned his chair so that his back was turned to Angel Dimov, his usual sparring partner.

Matchbox 20 played on the speakers as Dimov alternated between moving Hull’s pieces where he was commanded to and moving his own as he saw fit, telling Hull the new coordinates of his pieces.

After about 10 moves, Dimov told Hull he's taken one of his knights.

Hull quickly replied that he didn’t have a piece there. He turned around and back-tracked on his last three moves.

Dimov conceded Hull was right, and they agreed that Hull was winning. Dimov offered him an espresso bean, a reward for good play.

Hull serves as president of the Columbia Chess Club, one of two clubs in Columbia where experienced players can play a competitive match and beginners are welcome. The Columbia Chess Club started five years ago, and Hull has been president for three.

As president, he makes sure the other nine members have a place to play. Hull's also responsible for recruiting new members.

He’s been playing competitively for nine years, and he’s one of Columbia’s highest-rated players. Right now he’s trying to improve his skill rating while trying to give something back to the game he loves.

“People think that they’ll get beat if they join, so they're hesitant,” Hull said. “But we’ll take anyone.”

An Elo rating measures how skilled a chess player is. The method is named after its creator Arpad Elo, a Hungarian-born American physics professor.

Bobby Fischer, one of the world's greatest chess players, had a rating of 2,785 at his best. The highest human rating ever achieved was 2,851, though chess-playing super computers can be rated as high as 3,500.

Right now Hull said his rating is 1,593, but it has been as high as 1,850. He blames the drop in rating on playing chess with a timer. Hull said playing a lot of blitz chess, as it's known, usually causes a player's rating to drop.

Pierre Kpodar is one of the newest members of the chess club. Hull said his rating is about 650, meaning if the two played each other, Kpodar would probably win one out of 200 times.

He met Hull on Ninth Street in front of Starbucks. Hull can be found on Ninth Street most Wednesday and Thursday afternoons — weather permitting. He’ll play any challenger — a recruiting tool for the club — after finishing work as a telephone fundraiser a few blocks away.

“The more you play, the more you learn,” Kpodar said “With anything competitive, you’ll benefit from playing better competition.”

For the members of the Columbia Chess Club, better competition means Hull.

He started taking lesson when he was 19 because he saw what chess lessons did for his friend's ability.

"I used to always be able to beat him," he said "Then he started beating me."

Since then, by his count, Hull's played in about 50,000 matches and memorized 23.

In August 2006, Hull was visiting a friend in St. Petersburg in Russia when he asked the locals where he could play chess. He was pointed in the direction of the same tournament as the top under 20 years old female chess player in the world, Ekatarine Korbut.

Not knowing Russian or what he was in for, he signed up.

Hull said it was unlike any other tournament he's been to. The other players were drinking vodka and still "destroyed" him.

"One guy asked me, 'Why are you so terrible?," Hull said imitating a Russian accent.

The tournament in St. Petersburg was a learning experience for Hull. Now he offers a learning experience to others. On his business card he calls himself a chess instructor.

He said a beginning chess player could come to the Tuesday night meetings, and he would give that person free lessons.

"If you're a more experienced player, I would have to charge you more because I'd have to do more studying to teach you something," Hull said.

Right now he doesn't have any pupils.

Still, he can be found in the back of the coffee shop on Tuesday nights. Sometimes he's playing blitz chess matches between cups of coffee. 

Sometimes he's watching other matches. If he's available, he's the one to ask for advice during a match.

"What can I get out of this?" Jon Klaus, an experienced member, said to Hull.

"At least a draw."

For some members, the club offers an adrenaline rush.

Kpodar said he plays for the uncertainty.

"I also use chess to help think logically in the real world," Kpodar said.

For Klaus, it's simpler than that.

"It's good practice," he said. "I come here to play chess."

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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