Meet the Players: GM Robert Hess

GM Robert Hess is balancing chess with a full courseload at Yale and helping spearhead a new sports website: The Sports Quotient.


By Brian Jerauld

In the 2009 U.S. Championship, you came in as a wildcard and almost shocked the nation by taking second place, losing only to winner Hikaru Nakamura. You had another fantastic showing in 2011, but your performance was strangled by the tournament format. This year, the format is similar to the one used in 2009. Do you feel this is to your advantage? Tell us your thoughts and preferences on tournament formats.

My performance in 2009 was simply that: my performance in 2009. While I was very pleasantly surprised back then, I see no point in looking at that event as anything but one of my fondest memories. I honestly just enjoy playing at the CCSCSL – the atmosphere is amazing, the players are treated so well, and it’s an honor to have people rooting for me in the live audience (and my friends watching on live stream). The tournament format is secondary, as people will complain (and cheer) whether the event is nine rounds, 24 players or 12-person round robin. Objectively, I think the 12-player round-robin format was a good one, though it is disadvantageous to me (being a full-time student who can’t prepare, and doesn’t like to anyway).

You recently played in the March Masters at the Marshall Chess Club, but before that, your last tournament was over six months ago in August. How did you feel at Marshall? And what have you been doing during that hiatus? Yale can’t be keeping you that busy ... 

The Marshall event was just to see if I remembered that knights move in L-shapes. Chess has not been a focal point of mine for a long while now, as school is my main priority. Yale keeps me incredibly busy, as do my extracurricular activities (I help with and play the many Yale intramural sports, I attend many Public Health Coalition events, and lounge around on my bed). Besides being what I’d consider a typical college student (well, minus the alcohol – I’m a thinker, not a drinker), i.e. doing tons of homework and hanging out with friends, I put many hours into, the sports journalism site I help run.

I also spend a lot of time with my girlfriend, Sophie.

You were the 2010 recipient of the Samford Fellowship, an award that is well-represented in the player pool of the 2013 U.S. Championship. How did you use the benefits of that fellowship, and what has it done for your chess career?

I took a gap year between high school and college. I focused strictly on chess, competing in many international events. I took more lessons with my longtime coach, Grandmaster Miron Sher. I can’t stress enough how much Miron has influenced and helped me throughout my career, both before, during, and after I received the Fellowship

The Fellowship allowed me to become a stronger chess player, and at the beginning of last summer I had hit my peak rating (2639 FIDE). I was fortunate enough to qualify as a member of the U.S. team three times, and without the award and my subsequent year off from school, I never would have been able to play in these prestigious events. The Samford Fellowship allowed me the opportunity to achieve great success, and I would once again like to thank the committee, the Samford family, Barbara DeMaro. I’d also like to give a quick shout-out to my parents and siblings for all their love and support. Without them, I never would have been in contention for the award to begin with. And without my mom’s blessing to take a year off before starting at Yale, I never would have been able to optimally utilize the Fellowship.

Tell us about ... and: Is chess a sport? 

The Sports Quotient was molded to fill a void in the sports media space: smart young fans writing about sports. We wanted to read stuff by people like us, so we created a place where people could do so. And I think as we've come along, we've realized there are more people like us out there than we initially thought. Now the challenge is finding them.

To quote Zack Weiner, founder and CEO (and one of my best friends): “Why did we choose the internet as the space? We really had no other choice. If we had tried this 25 years ago, it wouldn't work. But this is what the internet ultimately does--connect people and ideas. And that's what we're all about. Really the SQ is a product of our era (technology) and our passion (sports).”

While all of our founders were chess players (myself, Zack Weiner, my brother, Leo Ernst), we don’t actually cover chess. The “is chess a sport” question is always asked. Do I think it is? It’s hard for me to consider it a sport, because when practicing you do nothing physical. Sure, the game itself takes a tremendous amount of endurance and mental strength, but it breaks down at the level of practice. It’s not a sport. Maybe a mental sport – I’ve heard it commonly referred to as the most extreme intellectual sport.

But why are we so eager to make it a sport? We just invite comparisons and naysayers. Why can’t chess just be chess? A beautiful game, in no need of being labeled a sport. That’s how I see it, at least. I enjoy playing the game, and don’t need it to be “validated” by being called a sport.

How does it feel to know you were drafted onto Fantasy Chess teams for this tournament? Did you draft yourself, or should that be considered faux pas?

I do not create fantasy chess teams, though I may this time around (a nice signed board sounds cool – it will make signing all of them until my hand is about to fall off seem even more worth it). Still probably won’t make one, but I think the concept is awesome. Even my friends who don’t play chess have made teams. The 2700 points you can use makes the system all the more interesting.