To Peabody's Max Enkin, a tennis court is really just an oversized chess board.
"My coach always said I was the best thinker on the court," said the recent St. John's Prep graduate, who is starting classes this fall at Brandeis University. "It's very hard to get the ball by me."
His first love, however, is chess. "My grandfather taught me at 4, and I got hooked," he said one night last month, sitting in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Peabody.
Having played tournament chess since he was 10, the 18-year-old Enkin was set to meet some of the toughest competition of his young life, right here in his own backyard. It was opening night of the New England Masters Chess Tournament, with 30 outstanding players, including four grandmasters (one of them the current US champion), settling in for a week of matches in a function room at the hotel on Route 1.
Enkin was one of several up-and-coming players competing for "norms" toward either international master or grandmaster status. New England Masters, organized by Peabody resident Chris Bird, is a relative rarity in American tournament chess, designed primarily for the possibility of awarding norms recognized by FIDE, the ruling body of chess.
"It's a unique tournament, all master strength and stronger," said Eugene Perelshteyn, a grandmaster from Swampscott whose father, Michael, was Enkin's chess coach. "In a regular tournament, there's everyone from grandmaster to beginner. Here, it's one section. It's the elite. There are no obvious weak players. Everyone is good enough to give a good game."
Players came from as far away as England, Germany, India, and the Dominican Republic. The field included one woman, New Yorker Elizabeth Vicary, and the youngest player ever to qualify for the US Chess Championship, 12-year-old Ray Robson from Florida. The US champion, Alexander Shabalov, was a late addition to the field, replacing an overseas grandmaster who was unable to attend.
With the first round set to begin, players greeted opponents they had faced in other tournaments. Young Sam Shankland, from California, paced the carpeted floor wearing a Borat T-shirt ("Very Nice!"). With games expected to take at least three hours, players unpacked water bottles and other refreshments; one participant set out a can of Red Bull and a bag of raisins.
As the games started, Bird updated the event's website (newenglandmasters.com) from his laptop and then stepped into the hallway.
A 35-year-old lifelong chess enthusiast from the riverside city of Hull, England, he moved to Las Vegas several years ago "for business and a female." The woman, who was originally from the South Shore, eventually became his wife, and they resettled in Massachusetts.
Despite time off from his day job as an office manager at Harvard Medical School, it promised to be a busy week for Bird. In addition to single-handedly running the tournament and keeping the website updated, he was on deadline with an article for Chess Life magazine. With matches set for 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. for the rest of the week, he expected his cellphone to ring around the clock with calls from players eager to learn the identity of their next opponent.
"The guys will be all over me - 'Are the pairings ready? Are the pairings ready?' " he said with a laugh.
All week long the hotel's Marblehead Room was locked in quiet concentration. Legs jangled; fingers drummed. Some players leaned forward, fingertips on temples. After making a move and pressing the big round button on their digital timers, players often got up to clear their heads. "Clearing their heads," in this case, usually meant analyzing the boards of other games in progress.
Enkin got off to a promising start with early wins against an international master and a slightly lower-rated Federation Internationale des Echecs master. Through Round 5, he and Robson each had 3 points, reflecting two wins and two draws apiece. Shabalov and Leonid Kritz, a grandmaster from Germany, led the pack with 4 points apiece.
By this point, however, Bird could see potential problems for the players hoping to secure norms. According to FIDE rules, a percentage of a candidate's opposition must come from outside his or her own federation, and the foreign players simply weren't performing well enough to be paired with players having more successful tournaments.
By Friday night's ninth and final round, neither Enkin nor Robson could have earned a norm even with another win. They hadn't played enough opponents from other federations.
Still, Enkin was pleased.
"I'm pretty happy with the way things turned out," he said afterward. "I beat the grandmaster from England," Nigel Davies. "That was a really good game. It was supposed to be a draw, probably, but he made a little mistake at the end and I was able to capitalize on it."
Bird agreed that it was a good week for his fellow Peabody resident. "For someone of his level," he said, "it was quite a breakout performance."
Robson, who beat Enkin in Round 6, went on to defeat Perelshteyn and earned a draw in the final round with an international master, Dean Ippolito, who tied for second place in the tournament with Shabalov.
"Everyone was astonished," said Enkin. The tournament's winner, Kritz, was less of a surprise; with an FIDE rating well over 2,500, he is one of a rare group of players who actually make their living through chess. He earned $900. Enkin shared the prize for players rated under 2,300 with another fast-improving player, Connecticut high schooler James Critelli.
It may be some time before Enkin has another norm opportunity. The United States doesn't host many tournaments with enough international talent, and Max's family wants him to focus on his chemistry studies in college.
But he's already come a long way from his early years playing competitive chess, when he sometimes suffered from panic attacks before the opening round, he said.
"Now, it's nothing like that," he said. "I'm much more comfortable."
Regardless of the age, background, or rating of his opponents, he knows he can match them wit for wit.
"It's all just one game," he said, "played by different people."