The doors open at 7 p.m. Monday and the room fills up pretty fast, with players taking up positions at any of the 48 tables each equipped with a chess board and pieces as well as a clock displaying the game time.
There’s a lot of chit-chat as regulars catch up but by the time 7:30 p.m. strikes, the room falls completely silent in a fashion reminiscent of a Sunday service for the New City Baptist Church that takes place here at 918 Bathurst St.
It’s time to get down to the business of playing chess.
For years the Annex Chess Club has served as a weekly rendezvous for chess enthusiasts across the city, offering an opportunity to learn the deeply thoughtful game as well as letting those with advanced skills compete on a regular basis.
Club manager George Supol touts it as a cultural meeting place where chess is for everyone — from young kids in elementary school and new immigrants who don’t even speak English to retirees looking for an opportunity to keep their minds sharp and celebrities in other fields looking to expand their horizons.
“Everyone comes to the club and feels right at home. Chess is a language that crosses all the boundaries and all the cultures, and it just puts a smile on people’s faces,” he said this Monday evening before the games started.
These days there’s one high-profile personality who has been gracing the club with regularity. Joey Votto, the Canadian first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, has been dropping in to play chess as he continues to rehab a shoulder injury that has sidelined him from baseball since August.
Earlier this month he shared an image with his Instagram followers, more than 134,000, showing him deep into a tense chess match at the Annex location.
“Big, big win yesterday,” he wrote in the caption, crediting a barley soup he had for lunch as a catalyst for the victory.
It might be a small community hub but the Annex Chess Club is used to hosting high-profile celebrities — though Votto, who is often seen out and about in the city during the baseball off-season, prefers to keep a low profile and declined to be interviewed so he could focus on his craft.
Actor Woody Harrelson has played here. Chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura stopped by last October and played a game, as did Jennifer Shahade. Nigel Short once stopped by and played electric guitar on the stage, before launching into a simultaneous exhibition where he played chess with 20 players at once.
Even with nearly 100 players on any given night, Supol said theirs is still a smaller group where people just want to improve their game skills and compete at the highest level. Some of the highest-ranked players at the club are kids aged 12 or under, who are adept at using technology to speed up the learning process.
“The kids are fearless,” he said, noting many of them come from families with a tradition of playing chess. “The smartest parents are the ones that don’t push too hard and let the kids just go on their own pace without being too aggressive.”
The Annex Chess Club is just one of several chess groups across the city, and some of its members also belong to other clubs where they can go and participate in different tournaments and increase their playing time. Annual membership here are $190 for adults and $130 for young kids and students. Classes are offered for $25 per hour.
Nearly an hour before this Monday’s meeting, Votto posted to his Instagram story an image of himself next to a GO Train with a caption: “Monday night chess, here I come.”
He arrived at the Annex club just minutes before the games started, fist-bumping the manager and several other players before settling into a seat at a far-end corner table. A bottle of water on hand, a pen and a scorecard nearby, he pulled his dark blue hoodie on and dove right into it.
“He’s good. I’ve never played him before but he’s winning now. He managed to trap my queen,” said Keith Denning, a veteran player who was matched up with Votto Monday night. While Denning took a quick cigarette break, Votto stayed put.
“He’s so concentrated. I’m a little worried I’m going to lose.”
Votto, 39, is no stranger to the game of chess. Mark Sheldon, the Reds beat writer for MLB.com, previously reported that Votto had mainly been facing his opponents online, and that he once met with former chess world champion Garry Kasparov in St. Louis, home of the World Chess Hall of Fame.
Votto’s interest for chess apparently increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. He posted a picture of himself in the Annex in November and announced he was going to play someone in person for the first time.
In response to a “good luck” message from the Reds, Votto later admitted to have been “flattened by a nine-year-old. More like a pawn.” He later deleted that reply.
Born in Toronto, Votto has had a successful career as a baseball player since being drafted in 2007, with six MLB all-star appearances and the 2010 National League MVP Award to his name, all with the Reds. He is also a two-time winner of the Lou Marsh Award (recently renamed the Northern Star Award) as Canadian athlete of the year.
It’s not clear if Votto will have recovered from his rotator cuff surgery in time for opening day a little more than two months from now, but it is clear that he relishes spending time at this local chess club on a regular basis where he blends in and gets lost in the game like hundreds of other players.
Michael Sutton, another veteran of the game who has been a club member for years, said it is fascinating to see the energy with which players get involved. Not only is chess a teaching tool and an exercise to help the mind concentrate and stay focused, it has also been an opportunity to reconnect with the community in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“Chess is really a social game. It brings people together and helps them get to know each other and have meaningful conversation, even though there’s almost no actual talking during the games,” he said. “Once the clock starts, it’s almost like sudden death overtime.”
Acquiring a high level of focus and concentration is one of the reasons Nicolas Kozas is trying to get his nine-year-old son Ian interested in the game. They have been playing together at their Toronto home for a while but now he wants to see if the youngster can join the Annex club and learn to play competitively.
“I think chess makes your brain learn to analyze different situations and get to the solution of a problem,” said Kozas.
For now, though, young Ian isn’t sure he likes sitting at a chess board for hours more than dribbling a basketball or kicking a soccer ball on the pitch.
“It will come with time,” his father said. As Votto has shown, there’s room for both.
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