Sixteen men gathered last weekend at the café J.D. Morrell’s in downtown Kalispell to slurp coffee, soda and Red Bull, and compete in the 12th Annual Flathead Chess Tournament. They sat among eight chessboards, many with their head in their hands, staring intensely down at the game pieces. There was little noise beyond a few frustrated sighs, the gentle “tick” of plastic game pieces moved from one square to another, followed by hands reaching out to hit the timers.
The men gathered at the behest of Gregory Nowak, who organized the tournament and traveled up from Missoula by bus for the weekend. Nowak, 60, is arguably the center of Montana’s small and disparate chess scene. He is also believed to be Montana’s last remaining certified national Chess Master, a title given by the United States Chess Federation based on tournament wins.
Nowak is tall, with heavy-lidded eyes, thick glasses and thinning hair. But his nondescript looks belie a fierce competitiveness. He is known as “The Octopus” for his ability to play multiple people simultaneously. In 2000 at the Kalispell Center Mall, he played 65 people at the same time, beating everyone.
Jo Daniels-Shay, now retired, was the Flathead High School teacher who organized the event and invited Nowak to play. Nowak could have played more people, she said, but 65 was as many chess players as she could gather.
“He said somewhere around the sixth hour he was having trouble with his concentration,” Daniels-Shay recalled. “The man is brilliant when it comes to chess.”
Nowak despairs that Montana lacks many expert chess players for him to go up against, but also enjoys being at the top of the heap. “Everyone enjoys winning,” he said.
A Milwaukee native, Nowak discovered chess at the age of 9 while out with his mother buying a birthday present for a cousin. His mother purchased a chess set, and Nowak said he found himself drawn to the game.
“I got it home and took off the top and something clicked in my mind like a rediscovery,” he said. “It was like I knew chess already.” Nowak began to play, and kept at it for the next 51 years. His cousin did not receive a chess set for his birthday that year.
“I did go out and buy him something else,” Nowak said.
He began reading chess books and studying opening moves and strategies of world chess champions, particularly the Russian masters of the 1950s and 1960s. Growing up, Nowak won the Milwaukee’s school chess tournaments five years in a row, until the superintendent kicked him out in order to give other children a chance to win. As a junior in high school, Nowak played chess legend Bobby Fischer to a draw.
“He was playing about 60 at once,” Nowak said. “But a draw is a draw is a draw.”
Nowak has lived in Missoula since 1991, where he gives lessons and will perform exhibitions as “The Octopus” playing multiple people at once, but he has to travel to sanctioned tournaments in other states in order to keep his ratings up.
Seated at a chessboard last weekend in Kalispell, surrounded by others playing chess, Nowak was utterly in his element. Sitting down to the board, he adjusted his chess pieces, centering them precisely within the squares. Once play began, other players sat silently in intense concentration, while Nowak barely looked at his own chessboard.
“Ah, Dan’s still playing the Dutch defense,” Nowak said, watching another game and nodding in approval.
The chess matches were timed, with each player getting 30 minutes. While other players hurriedly slapped the timers as soon as they made their move, Nowak distractedly chewed on an enormous cookie, and let the clock run down.
Nowak’s opponent, Bob Leader, has been playing Nowak for 14 years, and estimates he has lost to him hundreds of times. Leader fought valiantly, but the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
“You’re pretty much outmatched and you sort of resign yourself to defeat,” Leader said. “It’s sort of a relaxing game – you know you’re going to get beat.”
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