BEIRUT: The last minute of a chess game is one of fraught silence. There is no countdown or cheering crowd, but for the players leaning over the checkered board, it is the moment of truth. “We are the generals moving our armies forward, so it’s very exciting,” Faisal Khairallah, 38, Lebanon’s current and six-time chess champion, said moments after defeating an ambitious young challenger.
“It’s very close to boxing [in that] you have to attack the weaknesses of your opponent, be alert all the time. ... If you stop paying attention for one moment you lose the match.”
Like most of the players competing in this year’s Lebanese National Chess Federation tournament, Khairallah learned the game from his father at a young age. The contest will pit 12 players against each other in a round-robin tournament to determine the new champion, who will go on to represent Lebanon abroad. The winner will be determined on Oct. 10 at the Golden Tulip Galleria Hotel in Jnah.
Khairallah laughed off the suggestion that he was on the defense.
“I am always in an offensive position,” he joked. “It’s an honor to be the Lebanese champion.”
As the current reigning chess master, Khairallah has competed both regionally and internationally.
“For the size of the country we have strong chess players,” he said of Lebanon, adding that it was the only Arab country to ever defeat Egypt, considered a regional heavyweight.
Khairallah, who opened Lebanon’s first chess school, the Beirut Chess Academy in Gemmayzeh, six months ago, has seen a rise in interest locally as chess becomes more popular internationally. He expressed hope this would eventually translate into more material support from the Sports and Youth Ministry, which oversees the federation.
“It has been proved scientifically that chess improves mental and psychological skills in children and adults,” he said.
The Education Ministry apparently agrees, having launched a joint initiative with the federation called “Chess in Schools,” which will be implemented this year for the first time. Players from the federation are currently training teachers from over 100 public schools across Lebanon to teach the game to their students.
Maya Jalloul, 23, lauded the initiative, but said the state should concentrate on supporting the players who are already active by providing coaches and travel to tournaments.
Jalloul displayed sportsmanlike humor after losing to her opponent.
“It happens,” she said with a smile and a shrug.
Jalloul, the only woman participating in the tournament, shied away from labeling chess a “male-dominated sport,” but admitted that most of the players were men.
“You know girls tend to reach a certain age and stop,” she said. “From the beginning, boys are orientated [toward chess] more than girls, and that is for societal reasons.”
Jalloul declined to offer a prediction for this year’s winner, saying: “There is a lot of competition.”
Khairallah was more forthcoming, fingering Amru Jawiche as his most threatening competitor. Jawiche, just 18 years old, came in second last year.
“Chess is a very subtle game, broader than it seems; it requires a lot of skill and intelligence,” Jawiche said, humbly adding that he aimed to be in the top three.
“It’s better than computer games,” he said with a laugh.