MONTREAL — High-level chess is a young person’s game. Despite its appearance of immobility, a confrontation between brooding statues punctuated by brief, ponderous movements of arm and wrist, top-flight players finish the three- to four-hour matches physically and mentally spent. Pulse rates rise, and professionals exercise both mind and body to be able to maintain concentration levels.
Plus, at a certain age, the synapses don’t fire like they used to.
Despite this, chess master Jean Hebert, at 51 considered a dinosaur of his species, has embarked on a quest to become a grand master, the game’s highest ranking short of world champion. It is a lifetime designation bestowed on fewer than a dozen Canadians by chess’s international governing body, and less than 1,000 players worldwide.
At the age of 20, Hebert became the youngest player to win the Canadian Chess Championships in 1978.
Last week in Guelph, Ont., 31 years after his first national victory, Hebert beat out 30 of the nation’s top players to become the oldest person in at least 50 years, if not ever, to win the Canadian championships.
“I was a surprise both times,” Hebert laughs. “The first time because nobody really knew who I was and was so young, and this time because I’m relatively old.”
He could have attained grand master status three decades ago, he said, a status he likens to a hockey player making the NHL, but life got in the way.
Now, Hebert hopes to surprise the world again.
“Even though it’s late, I think that in the next two years, if I do things right, yes, I can become a grand master,” he said. “Which could be a record as well, at my age.”
Hebert’s brother taught him the game when he was five years old. By the age of eight he was competing against adults and at 16 represented Canada at the under-17 world championships. Four years later he became Canadian champion, and was awarded the title of international master, one step below grand master.
Hebert would have gone for grand master status, but the financial restrictions of international travel necessary to find competition of a high enough calibre, and a difference of opinion over the way in which Quebec was running its chess federation, led Hebert to place his dream on the back burner.
But not chess. He makes his living by it, teaching in person and over the Internet, analyzing players’ games and styles, writing columns and books. He was the chess columnist for Montreal’s La Presse in the 1980s.
He never stopped playing, representing Canada seven times in the Chess Olympiads, winning a bronze medal in 1982. He also excelled at correspondence chess (games used to take two to four years by mail, but have speeded to two to four months with the Internet — players can take days to make one move), and was named international grand master of correspondence chess in 1984, one of only a handful of Canadians to earn the title.
In 2002, he rejoined the Quebec Chess Federation and started competing anew.
Describing his win at the Canadian championships, Hebert sounds like an athlete in the zone, all aspects aligning to give him the most important attribute for winning: a positive attitude. He had just come off a second-place finish at the Quebec championships, and conditions at the tournament, during which he played nine games over nine days, allowed him to study his competitors’ styles of play on the Internet in the morning, then work out and swim at the pool and relax before game time.
He won his last four games. Most of his competitors were in their 20s, and Hebert’s age might have played in his favour.
“Jean is what we call an intuitive player,” said Richard Berube, director-general of the Quebec Chess Federation. “He doesn’t come into the game with a set plan, but reacts as it progresses. . . . He relies a lot on his experience to guide him, and he has much more experience than many of his competitors.”
The win earned Hebert $1,500, covering his expenses. More importantly, it qualified him for international competition, and convinced him it was time to take up his dream. At 51, he has the time, a partner who supports his decision despite the expense (“I hope to travel with him,” Anne Bazinet said. “And it’s the culmination of a career — he has to do this.”) He will start by going to Khanty Mansiysk, Siberia, in November to take on 128 of the best players on the globe at the World Cup 2009. After that he’ll seek out tournaments in Europe and elsewhere, continuing to teach while he’s at home.
It is also a chance to promote chess in Quebec and Canada.
“I believe deeply in the virtue of the game,” he said. “With our civilization of computers, getting things done quickly and easily, video games, many of them violent, with no formative aids for children, I think chess has more of a place in the world than it ever has before. . . .
“Chess is a school that teaches thought. It develops imagination, concentration, self-confidence and a respect of adversaries. It teaches one to look forward, to analyze, and on a social level, it teaches children responsibility, because when you lose at chess, you have no one to blame but yourself. And when you win, nobody else can take credit.”