Lawmakers match wits over chess

Politics aside, senators, delegates face off after hours

February 06, 2011|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

Put aside the competition between Democrats and Republicans. After hours in Annapolis, the rivalry is between senators and delegates.

Scarcely had they arrived for the 2011 session last month when lawmakers launched this year's edition of a young legislative tradition: the bipartisan, inter-cameral chess tournament. Matches over the next six weeks will determine champions from each chamber, who will face off in the final.

It's a competition that reminds some of their day jobs during the 90-day session.

"You always have to think three moves ahead," said Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, describing the link between the game and the legislative process. "You have to stay focused."

The state's legislative process also follows the rhythms of the game, members say. Consider how the addition of two liberals to the Senate Judiciary Proceedings Committee eases the way for gay marriage bill in Maryland this year, and possibly the of the death penalty in the future.

"In chess it is not just the immediate move that you are making," said Todd Eberly, acting director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "It is 'I've made this move. What will this give to me in terms of opportunities and limits down the road? What will this move cause my opponents to do?' "

"That is very much what politics about."

Members will be playing Monday night, but Round One began a week ago. At 8:30 p.m. — after both chambers had adjourned for the evening — a cluster of Senators and Delegates spread out in the plush Senate lounge. Six members sat elbow to elbow at a narrow table. Four other pairs nestled in corners or settled into couches to study their boards.

Normally confident men and women eyed each other warily.

Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola is pushing two of the most prominent pieces of legislation in Annapolis this year: bills to recognize same-sex marriage and to raise the gas tax. But in his match against freshman Sen. Ronald N. Young, he sought to temper expectations.

"I'm going to lose," Garagiola predicted.

(For the record, Young was equally uncomfortable. The Western Maryland Democrat sized up Garagiola and complained: "They are putting me against the leadership right from the beginning.")

The room fell silent as lawmakers known for their oratory skills focused on their chessboards.

"If only they studied legislation this closely," said a non-playing senator, observing the scene.

The tournament has its roots in a competition organized after the 2009 session, when lawmakers traveled to each other's homes for matches organized by region.

Sens. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat, and Bryan Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican, played to a draw in the final, and the Senate was declared the winning chamber.

The matches this year are scheduled for successive Monday evenings, when the legislature typically has a light agenda. Winners of the separate brackets for each chamber will face off March 14 for the plaque.

"You are guaranteed that it will be House versus Senate," said Simonaire, who organized the tournament this year to crown not only a champion, but a winning chamber.

"We are competitive." he explained.

A little competition between bodies is healthy, says Eberly, of St. Mary's College. The bodies are designed to approach legislation from different perspectives.

Just look at the state's legislative record over the past few years: Bills to legalize gambling were locked for years in an inter-cameral debate. The House typically strips legislative scholarships from the budget and the Senate restores them. The Senate likes a tax-credit for private schools, and the House last year killed it.

A spokeswoman from the National Conference of State Legislatures couldn't immediately say if other state legislative bodies have similar competitions. The group tracks legislation, not extra-curriculars.

Chess players were also unaware of comparable tournaments — but were quick to see opportunity.

"Oh wow," was how U.S. Chess Federation Executive Director Bill Hall greeted information about the Maryland competition. Then he stressed that school chess programs nationwide are being cut.

There is some historic precedent for this type of play. In 1897 members of the House of Representatives played a transatlantic chess match against the British House of Commons, communicating their moves by cable.

The match ended in a draw — "perhaps it is the best possible result for promoting the international good feeling," The New York Times concluded.

Members of Congress attempted to organize their own inter-cameral chess match in 1915, but it is unclear if it ever took place.

Members these days compete on along party lines: Republicans and Democrats play an annual Congressional baseball game for charity.

Perhaps appropriately the pace Maryland's legislative chess is slow. After ten minutes of play, Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat and Simonaire, had only traded a couple pawns.

"It is like a budget negotiation," observed Raskin, who earned a first-round bye. "It will take those two guys 15 hours to finish."

The Currie-Simonaire match also illustrated a side benefit of the competition: The game is a chance for members, in this case from opposite parties, to gain new insights and respect for one another.

When the pair finished — after about 90 minutes — neither was eager to leave the board. They reenacted key plays.

"I was worried about the knight!" Currie explained.

"Every piece of yours was protected," Simonaire complained. "I couldn't advance!"

Though somehow he did. Not that Simonaire took time to bask in his victory: He was already expressing concern about next week's match, against Raskin.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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