CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — After 10 years of playing chess, Matthew Fishbein was burned out.
He had been stuck just below the U.S. ranking of national master for two years, and the game he loved was losing its luster. In August, before beginning his sophomore year of high school, he took a hiatus from tournament play and focused on school, friends, hobbies — anything but chess.
It was just what he needed to get over the hump.
“I missed chess. So when I came back to it in January, and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to play some good chess,’” Fishbein said. “It was really fun, so I just kept going to tournament after tournament.”
And winning match after match.
Fishbein, 16, spent the past three months playing across the Northeast. In February, he was granted the title of national master by the U.S. Chess Federation, making him the top-ranked player in Maine, one of the country’s top 25 players at age 16 and one of the top 800 players nationwide.
Fishbein took up chess during elementary school, taking local classes and playing the computer game “Chessmaster 9000” several hours a day. By second grade, he was competing, and winning, at weekend tournaments.
Fishbein coaches his own students and takes lessons via Skype with David Vigorito, an international master based in Andover, Mass. He also scouts his future opponents, studying their tendencies and past games using online databases.
“It’s very serious,” Fishbein said of the atmosphere at the more competitive tournaments, where games can take up to six hours and players typically vary in age from 10 to 65.
“People play with fancy clocks and stuff,” he said.
Fishbein has considered making a career of chess, although he said it’s not a very lucrative profession. Despite the success of players like Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian world champion who earns millions from sponsorships and appearances, most professionals grind out a modest living by coaching, Fishbein said, and supplement their income with book deals or tournament winnings.
He’s got plenty of time to decide what he wants to do. Fishbein is simply enjoying his renewed love affair with his favorite pastime.
“There’s many things I love about the game,” he said. “One is the strategy, obviously. It’s always rich with strategy. With chess, you will never learn everything. You don’t even come close. You learn all the known patterns, but there’s all these weird instances that come up and you have to know what to do.
“I also like the people who play chess,” he added. “They’re very nice. Shy, studious types. By no means are they nerds. Not even remotely.”
He loves the satisfaction of winning, too, and lately, he’s had a lot to celebrate. He recently led the Cape Elizabeth High School team to the state championship, and last weekend he won his third state individual scholastic championship.
Next, he’s gearing up for April’s state championship tournament, where he tied for first place the past two years. Someday, he hopes to achieve senior master status, or one of the four prestigious titles awarded by the World Chess Federation.
“To be honest, I don’t even come close to winning most of the tournaments I play in,” Fishbein said. “But sometimes I do win, and it’s pretty awesome. You almost feel like you’re invincible.”