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Norwich 13-year-old becomes youngest champ ever in Vermont chess tournament

Alexander Collins, 13, of Norwich, replays a game he won at the Vermont Open chess tournament. Collins is the youngest champion to win the competition. On Wednesday, Nov. 16, he was at his weekly chess club at the Howe Library in Hanover, New Hampshire. Photo by Jennifer Hauck/Valley News

Editor’s note: This story by Liz Sauchelli first appeared in the Valley News on Nov. 20.

NORWICH — When Walter Chesnut lost a chess match to Alexander Collins at the Vermont Open earlier this month, he was pleasantly amazed.

“I had not been dismantled so efficiently that way in a very long time,” said Chesnut, who organizes the statewide championship. “Even though I lost, I’m happy.”

That’s because that match made Alexander, a 13-year-old Norwich resident, the youngest champion in Vermont history. He won all four of his matches over the course of the tournament held Nov. 13 and 14 at Burlington City Hall.

“I wasn’t really expecting to do very good because I had just taken a long break from playing tournaments or any chess except for chess club, so I didn’t think I was going to do very well,” Alexander said. “I was kind of surprised, but I just felt good about how I played in the games.”

Competitive chess players are assigned ratings that correspond with their demonstrated skill set. Beginners are typically between 600 to 1,000, Chesnut explained. Then come intermediate levels, which is where Alexander’s rating of 1,792 placed him prior to the tournament.

Experts are from 2,000 to 2,199, according to the United States Chess Federation. That’s followed by national masters, 2,200 to 2,399; then by senior masters who have a rating of 2,400 and above.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, someone who is a very good solid tournament player rating, not great, not terrible … who had this unbelievable tournament,” Chesnut said. “He performed as if he was a 2,400-rated player. That was his performance rating.”

This year, 44 people competed in the tournament, including 11 who played in the championship, Chesnut said. During the championship, Alexander beat two players who are rated in the national master category, one of whom has won the championship multiple times.

Alexander wasn’t even planning on entering the tournament until a week and a half before it took place, said his father, Matt Collins. One of the members of the chess club at the Howe Library in Hanover, New Hampshire, told him about it during the group’s weekly Wednesday night gatherings. In the lead-up to the tournament, he spent a couple hours each day analyzing his own games and studying games of other chess players, Collins said.

His interest in chess started in first grade after Collins brought home a board for Alexander, his twin brother, Oliver, and his older sister, Penelope.

“I just knew enough to be able … to teach him how to move the pieces,” Collins said.

The next morning when Collins woke up to tend to the woodstove, he found Alexander already at the chessboard. He had woken up early to play a game against himself.

“He was just so taken by the game,” Collins said. “He really took to it.”

After Bill Hammond, then principal at Marion Cross Elementary School, saw Alexander trying to encourage fellow students to play chess with him on the playground using the school’s two-foot-tall chess pieces, he reached out to Collins to encourage him to take his son to area chess tournaments. 

It soon became a family activity. Every few months they’d attend a tournament and make a weekend of the trip. Alexander also became a regular member of the Howe Library’s chess club.

Alexander Collins analyzes one of the games he played at the Vermont Open chess tournament with other members of his chess club on Wednesday, Nov. 16. At the table with him are Ben Usadi, of Quechee; Guillem Elizalde, 13, of Hanover, New Hampshire, Matt Collins (Alexander’s father) and Matthew Wofford, of Denver. Collins is the youngest participant to win the Vermont Open. Photo by Jennifer Hauck/Valley News

“He loves games and he loves competition and he loves sports and he just really, really gets into it and he has fun,” Collins said. “He’s just a pretty normal middle school boy, but he has this extra interest in chess.”

His family leaves Alexander’s decisions about chess up to him. After competing in a tournament this summer, he decided to take a break from tournaments to focus on soccer.

“I think he went into the tournament with a mind frame of … to sort of stay in the zone and just have fun and to take it one move at a time,” Collins said. “He did that, and he surprised everyone.”

Chess games can last up to six hours and Alexander’s average for the weekend was 2½ hours, Chesnut said. As the tournament went on, other participants took notice.

“As the tournament progressed, when it was not their move, they would get up and look at his board, whoever he was playing against,” Chesnut said. “Everyone was amazed. It was the talk of the tournament.”

His family was equally in awe.

“I’m totally truthfully surprised and a little bit floored by it,” Collins said. “It was just a very exciting day because it was such an unexpected result, and he was the underdog by a long shot, but somehow he pulled it off.”

The added attention didn’t seem to faze Alexander, who thought out each move carefully before making a decision.

“He takes a lot of time, which is very unlike younger players. He used a lot of time on his clock. He was very thoughtful, expressionless,” Chesnut said. “He just looked at the board, didn’t move, didn’t make any facial expressions. Every move he made was correct.”

Matthew Wofford, left, and Matt Collins, talk with Alexander Collins about one of the games he played during the Vermont Open chess tournament. Alexander is the youngest player to win the competition. Wofford, a member of the chess club at the Howe Library, has been mentoring Collins in the game. He recently moved to Denver and was back in the Upper Valley for business. Photo by Jennifer Hauck/Valley News

Alexander has had his fair share of wins, losses and draws at tournaments over the years. But during every tournament he has learned something new that he’s applied to future games. He does not have a formal coach. He practices at chess club and studies tactics using chess books or the internet, Collins said.

“Kids today have computers that will show them what the best move is scientifically, mathematically and definitively,” Chesnut said.

While teenagers have entered the Vermont Open over the years, Alexander is an exception. Many chess players tend to be older, although Chesnut has noticed a demographic shift since the Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” came out in 2020.

“Normally everyone has associated chess with super ‘intellectual’ males,” he said. “We have had an explosion of new players for tournaments from that and from all walks of life.”

Chesnut compared it to Bobby Fischer’s run in the 1970s, which inspired people to take up the game.

“I guess you can say chess is having a renaissance,” Chesnut said.

Alexander said he hopes his success will encourage other young people to take up chess. The word he kept coming back to when he described how he feels about chess is “fun.”

“It’s just been fun for me ever since I started playing it and getting to know new people from going to tournaments,” Alexander said. “It’s just been very fun.”

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