University of Toronto excels in the 2nd Ivy League Challenge!

It’s been a full year since the Inaugural Ivy League Challenge, Hart House Chess Club’s
little toy ship, set out quite bravely in its first adventurous voyage. And what a beautiful journey that was! Full of great games, new friendships and fond memories. Small wonder that a unanimous group of team captains, players and organizers made a solemn pledge to repeat the event in the years to follow. As we moved into the first half of November, it was that time of the year again!

The venue and the centennial celebrations

The 2nd Ivy League Challenge Poster

The Ivy League Challenge is an invitational intercollegiate team chess tournament, open to Canadian and U.S. Universities in the North East. In its second year, the event was again hosted by Hart House Chess Club for University of Toronto and it marked a truly special occasion for the organizing club, as the hosting Institution, Hart House, was entering its 100th year since its founding. The beautiful building, which was renovated last summer, was ready for the historic unveiling of the Hart House Centennial Art Commission: a new sculptural masterwork by Anishnaabe artist Rebecca Belmore and her partner Osvaldo Yero entitled waabidiziiyan doopwining (to see oneself at the table), marking the beginning of a second century at Hart House!

The games took place in the Hart House East Common Room, an elegant first-floor hall, organized around an impressive windowed alcove space that houses a grand piano, flanked by two soaring leaded glass windows. Unique period chandeliers and candle-inspired wall sconces provided a warm atmosphere for the players under the refined coffered ceilings. A sleek stone fireplace, which anchors one end of the room, provided a romantic touch.

Hart House.jpg
Carved on the exterior walls of the hundred-year old building: “November 9th 1919”

The new faces and the familiar ones

Like last year, the hosting University was represented by two teams, UofT A and UofT B, who competed against each other but also against the very capable chess teams of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and MIT (this year, the excellent team of University of Michigan was not able to attend the event but their friends for MIT were most glad to fill the open spot).

The organizers were delighted to welcome back to a chilly but sunny Toronto the returning players of the guest teams – including the Tournament Director’s last year’s favorite, Isaac Martinez from Princeton – and they were even more glad to be introduced to some newcomers, who traveled across the border to compete in one of North America’s strongest Intercollegiate events.

The Manulife Center Tower in the heart of downtown Toronto accommodated the event participants.

The guest teams arrived in Toronto the night before the event and were accommodated at the Manulife Center, a historic tower, which was designed by the Toronto architectural firm of Clifford and Lawrie Architects and was completed in 1974. The retail portion of Manulife Centre serves the local population, and includes Birks and Indigo Books, whereas Bay Bloor Radio, which was founded in 1946, moved into the Manulife Centre when it opened and remains there today! As always, the staff of the Manulife Residence were very polite and obliging, both to the organizers and to the guests, always showing great care for their needs. We are grateful for their thoughtfulness.

Michelle Brownrigg, Chief Program Officer at Hart House delivered the opening remarks at the Opening Ceremony

Day 1 – The civil war and a story of two favorites

The first day of the tournament started with the opening ceremony, during which Tournament Director, Panayoti Tsialas, gave a warm welcome to the players, acknowledged the long-time and indispensable assistance of Hart House and introduced the organizing staff. Michelle Brownrigg, the Senior Director of Co-Curricular Education & Chief Program Officer at Hart House delivered the opening remarks, sharing her excitement about the centennial celebrations of the hosting Institution. Finally, representing Hart House Chess Club’s executive board, Alyssa Rusonik, proudly announced the exciting news about University of Toronto’s decision to submit a bid to host the 2020 Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Champion and, in this way, to celebrate the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the chess club and the 100th anniversary of Hart House!

The impressive trophies of the Ivy League Challenge!

Turning to the games, the first round started almost on time with two matches drawing a lot of attention: Harvard was paired against their arch-rivals from Yale, whereas University of Toronto A was facing University of Toronto B in a peculiar civl war situation! And while the match between the Yalies and the Crimsonites ended in a hard fought tie (2-2), UofT B was not able resist the sweeping force of UofT A, resulting in 4-0 triumph for Toronto’s A team. In the last match of the day, Princeton beat MIT by 3-1, despite the remarkable resilience exhibited by the players from Massachusetts.

The longtime rivalry between Yale and Harvard has its equivalent in chess competition!

The evening round was no less exciting with MIT playing against their fellow neighbors from Harvard, the former emerging victorious by 3.5-0.5 after a really hard-fought marathon game on the first board. Meanwhile, Princeton showed that it was no accident that they won the event last year, as they convincingly defeated UofT B by 3.5-0.5, without losing a single game. Finally, University of Toronto A prevailed by 3-1 in a match against Yale which was tougher than the score suggests.

In a gesture of extreme sportsmanship, MIT’s Nguyen Le played against Harvard’s Ella Papanek, dressed in Harvard attire!

These results shaped the team rankings after the first day in the following way: Princeton and University of Toronto A (the two top seeds in the starting rankings), were marching forward undefeated, rightfully earning their status as clear favorites. MIT was just two match points behind from the top, within striking distance, whereas Harvard, Yale and UofT B were entering the second day with the hope to find their to victory.

Day 2 – Toughest ten minutes there is

Considering the team rankings after the second round, it was clear that the Saturday morning round could prove critical, as the top two teams, Princeton and UofT A were paired against each other in a pairing more akin to the Swiss-system.

The match began quite peacefully with Princeton’s GM Andrew Tang (black) drawing his game against Toronto’s IM Advait Patel (white) quite quickly. In the rest of the boards, however, the situation was far from quiet, as fireworks began to appear on all three boards! On board four, Toronto’s Joe Bellissimo sacrificed an exchange from as early as move 15, whereas on boards two and three the opponents were carrying out fierce attacks on opposite wings, which rarely leads to a draw. The suspense quickly built up as it became clearer and clearer that there would most likely be decisive results on all three boards. And yet, nobody could predict, which side would prevail on each board.

The critical round 3 match between Princeton and University of Toronto A has just started

The fate of the match was decided in literally ten long and suspenseful minutes. On board two, Princeton’s FM Ethan Li saw his queenside attack bear fruit, leading to a pawn promotion on the a8 square. But no longer had he managed to queen his a-pawn, than he saw FM Mark Plotkin’s pieces surround and mate his vulnerable king on the kingside. A most exciting and double-edged game, which John Upper, national master and editor of “Chess Canada CFC Newsletter”, is currently preparing an annotation for.

In the meantime, on board 3, Toronto’s FM Qiyu Zhou also saw her kingside attack progress rapidly, until she had to part with her queen in exchange for Christopher Yang’s two rooks. Despite that trade, however, Christopher’s king had lost his fianchetto bishop and was alarmingly exposed to the combined forces of the opposite bishop and the incredibly powerful rooks. Somewhat surprisingly, in just a few moves after Qiyu surrendered her queen, her well co-ordinated pieces managed to deliver checkmate on f8 in Paul Morphy fashion. These two results, which came within just ten minutes from each other, decided the outcome of the match. University of Toronto A was the sole leader in the tournament after three rounds (the match ended in 3 – 1, as Joe Bellissimo drew his game against Isaac Martinez in an opposite-colored bishop endgame, where black’s extra pawn was of no help).

Princeton’s GM Andrew Tang was the top rated player of the event

In the other two matches, UofT B scored its first point, by tying its match against Harvard (2-2), whereas MIT managed to overpower Yale’s remarkable resistance and clinch the match by 2.5-1.5, joining Princeton on second place after Round 3.

After a marathon game, UofT B’s Dai Wenzhi managed to draw his game against MIT’s Jason Altschuler who was in great shape.

In the evening of the same day, MIT continued its winning streak, by inflicting a loss by 3.5-0.5 on UofT B, thereby remaining just one match-victory behind University of Toronto A. The latter also scored a 3.5-0.5 victory against Harvard and kept its lead. Finally, the Princeton Tigers defeated the stubbornly resisting Yalies by 3-1.

Day 3 – Moves speak louder than forecasts

Thus, the competing teams entered the last round of the games, with UofT A being the sole leader in the team rankings, while Princeton and MIT were just two match points behind, ready to exploit any hiccup by the “leafs”. Clearly, the decisive match at the top would be that between MIT and UofT A. If MIT could win, there could be a two-way or a three-way tie at the top, each of the three tying teams, Princeton UofT A and MIT, having lost to one and defeated the other. Based on average team ratings, UofT A was the clear favorite, but the unfolding of the games made it clear that, when first place is at stake, forecasts give way to realities.

Mark Plotkin (UofT A) is facing Richard Yi (MIT) for the 5th round

As the last round started, the melodic tunes of operatic music briefly echoed through the building corridors, triggering smiles and giggles: a group of senior Chinese opera singers were paying a visit to the Hart House, clearly enjoying themselves, taking pictures and singing arias in the hallways of the historic building.

Nalin Khanna, Yale’s top rated player, held really well on board 2, scoring 3.5/5 and not losing a single game!

Unlike the fine melodies, the critical match between UofT and MIT did not begin peacefully at all but, rather, it erupted with two decisive results. On board two, Mark Plotkin’s active pieces found their way to Richard Yi’s castled king, whereas on board one, MIT’s Jason Altschuler managed to beat Toronto’s IM Advait Patel. The score was 1-1 with fairly balanced positions on boards 3 and 4. Then, quite suddenly, after opening the a-file, UofT’s Joe Bellissimo, used his major pieces to attack Nguyen Le’s long castle, resulting in a gold-medal victory! Soon thereafter, the players on the third board agreed to a draw, which led to the final score: 2.5-1.5. University of Toronto A were the 2019 Ivy League Champions!

Harvard’s Chess Team in action!

In the other last-round matches, Princeton defeated Harvard by 3-1 winning clear second place, while Yale and UofT B tied their match and shared fourth place with Harvard.

“So the last shall be first…”

Flash back to last year: after five excruciating rounds, University of Toronto A was struggling to recover from being confined to the last place in the final team rankings. This year, however, the “blues” managed to conjure up a miraculous return and finish the tournament at the top of the field, undefeated as a team and with just one individual loss in the last round. Thus, the last became first and they totally deserve all the credit for their impressive comeback. Congratulations!

Chief Arbiter Weiwen Leung is awarding the trophy to the proud winners of the 2nd Ivy League Challenge!

At an individual level, GM Andrew Tang from Princeton, the top seed of the tournament, scored an impressive 4.5/5 points and rightfully earned the top board 1 distinction. MIT’s Jason Altshuler deserves an honorable mention here, not only for his solid performance on board 1 with 3/5 but, most importantly, for achieving the major upset victory in round five against UofT A, the only loss suffered by any UofT A player in the tournament.

Solid performance and a splendid 4.5/5 on board 1 by Princeton’s GM Andrew Tang!

On board 2, University of Toronto’s FM Mark Plotkin outdid himself with a perfect score of 5/5, scoring one of his five victories on board 1! A truly outstanding performance, unmatched by any other player’s in the event.

FM Mark Plotkin won the top board 2 prize with a perfect 5/5 score, a remarkable feat achieved by no other contestant.

On board 3, FM Qiyu Zhou of UofT A scored a splendid 4 out 5 and earned the top player distinction for her board. Qiyu also wrote a report on the event, which will soon be published on and we are very thankful to her for her piece.

Formidable performance and 4/5 on board 3 for UofT’s FM Qiyu Zhou!

Finally, on board 4, another player from UofT A, NM Joseph Bellissimo, won 4.5 points in 5 games, a really astonishing performance, for which he was awarded the top board 4 distinction.

Another excellent performance under Joe Bellissimo’s belt, who scored 4.5/5 and won the best individual award on board 4!

As for the best game award, that was given to Mark Plotkin and Ethan Li for the double-edged and extremely sharp game they played on critical round 3 of the games.

FMs Ethan Li (Princeton) and Mark Plotkin (UofT A) won the best game award for their suspenseful and double edged game on round 3.

Once again, an honorable mention is owed to MIT’s Jason Altschuler and to Yale’s Dex Webster for their spectacular round 3 game, which displayed nothing less than a queen sacrifice, followed by further material sacrifices!

MIT’s top board Jason Altschuler scored a great victory on round 5 and uncorked a spectacular queen sacrifice on round 3

Of course, all teams and participants deserve our warmest congratulations for their hard effort, their fighting spirit and the healthy competition. Most games were great to watch and they engaged the audiences, who were given the choice to either stroll by the playing hall and watch the games on-site or view the games live, in real time here.

Karen Wan (left) served as floor arbiter and digital board operator. Sean Lei (right) was Assistant Tournament Director.

Pub Night, Acknowledgments and Farewell

Playing competitive chess is, of course, the principal reason for participating in the Ivy League Challenge. But it is not the only one! Many of the guests, for example, seized the opportunity of their Fall trip to Toronto to explore the hometown of the Raptors, visiting such well-known city-landmarks as the CN Tower, Yorkville and the Distillery areas, the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Toronto City Hall and Saint Lawrence Market. The temperature was low but the weather was sunny and conducive to downtown walks and city tours!

Within just a few days, Harvard’s Sarah Ascherman and Ella Papanek walked the city and had a taste of most of Toronto’s tourist attractions!

The organizing committee had also arranged a social event at the Firkin on Bay, a beautiful and lively pub near the Manulife Center and the playing Hall. Contradicting the longtime rumor that chess players are nerdy introverts, almost all participants gladly attended the pub night, mingling and hanging out, in a cheerful and friendly atmosphere of fun and exuberance. The food and the drinks at the Firkin were delicious and the waiters were thoughtful, kind and accommodating: in short outstanding!

Longtime friends Andrew Tang (Princeton) and Aaron Jacobson (Harvard) are having a friendly chat at the Firkin. The next day they faced each other for round 5!

Those who stayed after 11:30 p.m., and they were many, were richly rewarded, when the pub tables were cleaned and the clocks, boards and pieces were set-up. Blitz games were succeeded by bughouse games in a crescendo of casual chess joy, until there was no-one else left at the pub and players had to leave the establishment and get some rest for the last day of the event!

Ethan Li teamed up with Ethan Moon for some pub bughouse chess!

For this magnificent event, Hart House Chess Club wishes to acknowledge the tireless efforts of all the organizing staff who contributed to the hosting of this tournament. First of all, we would like to thank our Arbiters, Weiwen Leung (Chief Arbiter), Alex Ferreira (Deputy Chief Arbiter), Corinna Wan and Karen Wan (Arbiters), for the excellent conducting of all matters relating to pairings, results etc. Karen was also tasked with the live broadcasting of the games and displayed great skill in the smooth operation of the digital boards.

Where did Deputy Chief Arbiter Alex Ferreira buy his smurf hat?

The Chess Club is also indebted to the team of organizers including, Panayoti Tsialas (Chief Tournament Director), Alyssa Rusonik and Sean Lei (Assistant Tournament Directors), who did a lot of work to prepare and run the event. Tanner McNamara and Jimmy Bartha also offered a very generous helping hand in setting up and taking down.

Tanner McNamara played on board 2 for UofT B but also helped in the organization of the event

Most of the credit for our beautiful photo gallery is owed to Skylar Cheung, who writes at the “Varsity” and who did an incredible job as the photo journalist of our event! We encourage you to have a look at the marvelous piece she wrote about the event, in a series of stills with photo descriptions to tell the story of the event! We would also like to thank John Upper from Chess Canada CFC Newsletter, who also provided some of our gallery’s pictures and annotated the game Ethan Li – Mark Plotkin, which won the best-game award. Panayoti Tsialas, Corinna Wan and Karen Wan took some of the gallery pictures as well. Finally, a warm thank you goes out to Brett Sherman from Ryerson’s Film School, who shot, directed and edited the videos of the event!

Aspiring filmmaker, Brett Sherman, shot the videos of the 2nd Ivy League Challenge – Alyssa Rusonik was the Assistant TD

As a final note, let us repeat our thanks to the Manulife Center, the Firkin on Bay and, of course, our hundred years old hosting Institution, the Hart House, for the space the assistance and the generous support. Most importantly, however, let us reiterate our heartfelt thanks to all the participants from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT and UofT, who honored our event with their active engagement. It was a real pleasure hosting them at the Hart House.

FA Weiwen Leung was the Chief Arbiter of the 2nd Ivy League Challenge

The 2nd Ivy League Challenge may be over, but we will reflect on the beautiful moments we shared, with fond memories. We’re gonna take a short break to rest for a year and we will be anxiously awaiting for the 3rd Ivy League Challenge, hopefully hosted by another North Eastern University, willing to carry the torch! Farewell!


2nd Ivy League Challenge Record

Pairings and Results
Team Rankings
Photo Gallery
– Videos (here and here)
– Articles: a) Skylar Cheung’s story