Chess grandmasters Tigran L. Petrosian and Varuzhan Akobian challenged by Sonoma County kids

The boy rested his head on a picnic table overlooking a Santa Rosa vineyard Monday, his intense gaze now level with the chessboard.

From this angle, Pranav Thyagarajan thought he spotted a path to victory. But when his opponent effectively ended the match on the next move with what’s known as a pawn promotion, the 11-year-old glanced up at his father and said softly, “I didn’t see it.”

No wonder. The boy’s opponent ­- Tigran L. Petrosian - is considered one of the world’s best players, having attained the title of grandmaster. Petrosian is in Santa Rosa this week to square off against fellow grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian in what is being billed as Sonoma County’s first invitational match featuring players of such caliber.

Play between the two Armenian-born men begins this morning at Santa Rosa’s Paradise Ridge Winery, followed in the afternoon by another session at Cafe Noto in Windsor. The matches, which are open to the public, continue through Thursday.

Prior to the start of competition, the grandmasters took time on Monday to play chess with more than two dozen kids from across Sonoma County. The event at Paradise Ridge was organized by Chess for Kids, which fosters love of the game in dozens of schools in Sonoma and Napa counties.

Jolie Cook, the organization’s president, called it an “incredible opportunity,” comparing play against grandmasters to playing baseball with Buster Posey.

“These are some of the best players in the world,” she said.

Petrosian, who is named after the first Armenian to obtain the title of world champion, earned the right to take on current world champion Norwegian Magnus Carlsen in a June 23 match on

Such matches often are marked by incredible tension. But Monday at Paradise Ridge, Petrosian appeared smiling and relaxed.

“I want to make it fun for them,” he said of the kids. “I remember me at that age, playing grandmasters.”

He and Akobian squared off against 26 kids in a round of speed chess, the men going from one board to the next to make their next moves. The kids, most in grades K-6, sat at picnic tables beneath a large oak tree as an evening sun cast shadows across vineyards in the valley below.

Katie Thomas, 9, a student at Strawberry Elementary School in Santa Rosa, said her dad taught her how to play chess last year. She said she enjoys the game because “you really have to think what the other person is doing.”

Liam Morrison planned to use his patented “Liam Opening” against Petrosian, a series of moves involving a bishop and pawn to get to the grandmaster’s queen.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Petrosian ended the match with the sixth-grader at Cali Calmecac Language Academy after about 45 minutes, much to the boy’s dismay.

“I thought it would take longer,” Morrison said.

After the matches, Akobian and Petrosian posed for photos and signed autographs. They also gave a lecture on a few chess moves.

The two men most recently competed against one another at the Chicago Open in late May. In Sonoma County, they will play for pride and an undisclosed amount of prize money. The Paradise Ridge matches are being held at 10 a.m. today through Thursday. Admission is $15 and free for those 18 and under. The Cafe Noto matches in Windsor are at 4 p.m. and free to the public. Exhibition games also are scheduled for Friday.

All proceeds from the event will go to Chess for Kids’ scholarship program, according to match organizer Thomas Southerland. For more information, visit http://thomassou?

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