WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — Two Airmen from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base brought home honors for the Air Force at the 61st annual U.S. Armed Forces Chess Championship, held Oct. 10-12 in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
1st Lt. Eigen Wang, National Air and Space Intelligence Center, won the Air Force title and third overall this year, while Maj. Gordon Randall, director of operations, 88th Comptroller Squadron, finished second in the Air Force and fourth overall. Both received plaques for their accomplishments.
Eligible participants usually include past and present members of the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, ROTC college students and military academy students, but because of COVID-19 restrictions, only 20 people could be present this year. Usually 50 or so players compete. Still, such wins are nothing new for the two men – last year Wang won first place overall in the same tournament, while Randall was in a four-way tie for second with three wins and two draws.
The two played each other twice in Virginia Beach, with their first match a draw and the second a win for Wang. They have also played each other casually and have been roommates at tournaments.
“After every game, he’s pretty much the first person I go to to go over everything and see where I made mistakes,” Randall said. “I look at his game as well to see how he did.”
U.S. Chess Federation President Mike Hoffpauir, a retired Army colonel, directed the tournament.
“We were very fortunate to have him in attendance and as the tournament director,” Randall said. “That was a big deal.”
Randall thanked Hoffpauir and Tom Belke, who has been playing competitive chess for 49 years, with Wang adding his thanks.
“Tom set up the event; provided the venue, food and drinks; and made sure we were safe,” Randall said. “It was very, very well organized. He is well respected and year after year generously provides donations for the trophy, prize pool and more. Without him, we certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it this year.”
“The games were held safely in different rooms,” Wang said. “We were able to practice social distancing. It was a great accomplishment.”
Getting an early start
Wang learned chess rules at age 6 at an after-school program in New York City and began training with a coach and playing in tournaments at age 9.
“At that point, I was really into the game,” he said.
He has been playing ever since.
“Chess is a great thinking and strategy game. It brings out the competitive side of me. Over the years it has brought me into a great community of chess players and people across the country,” Wang said.
The game helps him with his work at NASIC in making decisions, “seeing the big picture,” and determining the best steps forward, he said. “Chess has helped me discover certain sides of myself that I probably would have had a harder time otherwise. It’s helped me be more integrated into the rest of the world.”
Wang’s advice to young people and others considering taking up the game?
“Play your own game; play your own style and the way you want to play. Creativity and individualism are big aspects of the game, so don’t let other people try to control the way you play too much,” he said.
The best way to stay sharp is to study the games of the top players and grand masters of the world, Wang noted. Doing so online is effective, he added.
“Studying that way can help a lot of players understand the game,” Wang said.
A book he recommends is “My System” by Aron Nimzowitsch.
Randall taught himself
Between 2006 and 2020, Randall participated in the U.S. Armed Forces Chess Championship 10 times and in 149 total national and international tournaments. He started representing the Air Force as an Air Force Academy cadet in 2005.
He started playing at age 4 after he picked up a book to learn the game. Competitions began at age 12.
“It’s one of the only games where everything is right in front of you. There’s no roll of the dice,” Randall said. “If you beat your opponent, you performed better.”
He recommends people take up the game for its many benefits: critical thinking in going down different “decision tree” paths to get to an end goal; meeting new people; playing for one’s entire life; and being a part of something that is internationally appreciated and universal.
“It’s a common language you can ‘speak’,” he said.
Randall practices by playing at least an hour or two online every day and studying other players and the history of the game.
“I’m going to try to get better, keep practicing, play in online chess tournaments – that’s the way chess is going these days with the pandemic.”
From Berlin to Belgium
Last year, Wang and Randall competed on Team USA in the 30th NATO Chess Tournament in Berlin. Randall has competed in NATO contests four times, Wang once. Wang placed second in his first international competition.
“That is a huge, huge deal,” Randall said. “We’ve had some pretty strong players before, but that is the first time for that accomplishment. He is certainly something special. He is an extremely strong chess player.”
Randall said the NATO events are the ones he is most proud of attending because of their magnitude. He has competed in them in Great Britain, Hungary, Texas and Berlin.
Both have been selected to play in next year’s NATO tourney in Belgium.