Horses gallop, bugles blare, swords clang. An abusive Sean Connery-sounding voice taunts you, urging you to surrender. You aren't deep in the heat of battle. You're playing chess, the parlor game of choice for intelligent kids (okay, geeks), with one Ivan the Terrible. It's not a dream. The Russian ruler hasn't returned from the dead to ridicule you into a sobbing heap. Ivan coaxes, belittles, teaches, challenges. He does everything but run your bath and mow the lawn. He's not a person, but an electronic chess game made by Excalibur Electronics, a local company that manufactures 80 such products.
Excalibur is a sponsor of the Junior Orange Bowl International Chess Championship, which begins this weekend. Established just last year, the tournament attracts some of the finest players age eighteen and under from 61 countries. They'll gather to crush one another on the game board and compete for prizes, Ivan among them. The Junior Orange Bowl touts itself as the world's largest youth festival. But as many a pasty chess-playing wimp knows, when it comes to battle, bigger is not the key. Better, bettering your opponent, is all that matters.
"Chess is the most popular board game in the world," claims Shane Samole, president of Excalibur, who enthusiastically extols the virtues of his products but bluntly admits to preferring Scrabble over the headache-inducing pastime. "It's the only game that's played in just about every country." It was certainly played often in the Samole household recalls Shane, who learned the basics as a young boy. Inspired by a Star Trek episode, Samole's dad, Sidney, created the first electronic chess game in the Seventies, when home computers were rare and the monotonous Pong was the height of sophistication in electronic playthings.
Excalibur is constructing new headquarters in South Miami-Dade. Slated to open next spring, the chessboard-shape building will feature the U.S. and World Chess Halls of Fame and the Sidney Samole Chess Museum. Just another lure for current and future players. "Chess is cool," says Samole, repudiating and then reinforcing the diversion's egghead reputation. "You're competing brain against brain. You want to prove you're smarter than the guy next to you."