Ian Martinovsky, left, and Bennett Schnabel, right. Photo by Scott Strasser

Isfeld exchange student from Germany beats former U.S. chess champion

Sixteen-year-old Bennett Schnabel has made quite an impact on a Comox chess club

He came to Canada a student and will return to Germany almost a master.

Sixteen-year-old Bennett Schnabel, of Berlin, is a Grade 11 exchange student at Mark R. Isfeld Secondary School.

And he’s really, really good at chess — just ask former U.S. open champion and international master Georgi Orlov, who lost to the 16-year-old at a tournament in Richmond last month.

Schnabel — who said he came to the Comox Valley to improve his English and skiing — has played chess since he was four years old. He has a 2198 rating by the World Chess Federation, which is two points away from a candidate master rank.

He is also the under-18 champion in Germany.

“My dad taught me how to play. He’s a really good chess player, too. He’s still a little better than me but I think I’m going to catch him soon. I grew up with chess and it was always a part of my life,” said Schnabel.

“I just enjoy the game — to outsmart people. You don’t have to be big or small, you just have to play.”

Back home in Berlin, Schnabel trained three times a week with a tutor and competed in chess tournaments every few weeks.

To keep his skills sharp during his exchange, Schnabel attends a recently formed chess club’s gatherings at the Comox Library on Wednesday evenings. The club comprises players from throughout the North Island, including members of the Bishops of Bowser club.

Read More: New chess club forms at Comox Library

Phil Boyle, a co-ordinator of the new club, said the young German has been a revelation among local chess players since he arrived in the Valley last fall.

“I’m nearly 70 and here’s this 16-year-old teaching us some of the finer points of chess. It’s just a pleasure to play against him and watch him play,” said Boyle. “He’s had a wonderful grounding in chess in Berlin.”

According to Boyle, one of the only players in the Valley who can compete with Schnabel is local master Ian Martinovsky.

“The two of them have had some wonderful games here and we find ourselves watching their games sometimes… they’re brilliant players, both of them,” he said.

Besting an international master

Last month, Schnabel competed at the 43rd annual Keres Memorial tournament in Richmond, where he defeated Georgi Orlov (2575 rating).

“It was a marvelous upset but it doesn’t surprise me because he’s such a bright young man,” said Boyle. “It will be interesting to follow [his career] when he goes back to Berlin, to see how high he goes with chess.”

Schnabel finished 14th at the Keres Memorial after further wins over Victoria master Roger Patterson and Chuyang Gu, a draw with master Jeremy Hui and losses to international master Stanislav Kriventsov and former B.C. champion Jack Yoos.

An interesting link between Schnabel and Orlov is that his father competed against Orlov multiple times in the 1990s, but was not able to beat him.

“The pressure was on to get the win for my family,” said Schnabel.

With his school year in Canada coming to an end, Schnabel will return to Berlin next month. He said he will miss the Valley, but is excited to see his friends and get his driver’s licence.

But before he goes back, his whole family will visit the Comox Valley to see the place he’s called home for the last 10 months — and maybe play a game of chess or two at the Comox Library.

“Now I can get beaten by the whole family,” said Boyle.

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