Weekly chess nights encourage play for all ages

Girl playing chess

Shanylei Hamilton, 7, ponders her next move. Hamilton was one of last Friday's attendees at "Family Chess Knight" at the Richmond Recreational Complex on Macdonald Avenue. (Photo by: Stephen Hobbs)

Hands slapping against plastic, followed by the beep of a digital clock, were the only sounds heard over the constant hum in the Richmond Recreational Complex during the weekly community chess night.

Two boys, Ayanius Saucer, 10, and Akai Strong, 8, were looking intently at the board in front of them, pondering every move. As decisions became less obvious, and strategy more important, the boys took longer and longer to decide. When they did, their eyes would get wide and they would move the chess piece to another square, sometimes eliminating their opponent’s piece from the board. Then each boy would hit the digital clock at the side of the board, signaling the moment for his opponent to move.

Since February 1, T.C. Ball, the outreach director for the West Coast Chess Alliance, has been organizing weekly learning and playing sessions with the city’s recreation department to help turn chess into a year-round part of the Richmond community. “Family Chess Knight” gives Ball, 59, the chance to take his passion for the game and pass it on to younger generations.

“I wish I would have learned at their age,” Ball said. “To me chess is like a lifelong pursuit. I have been playing for over 35 years and I am still learning.”

Chess has been a community game in Richmond for many years. In 1983, the Greater Richmond Chess Association was established to increase support for the game in the city. But the group ended after the death of John Easterling, an influential member of the Richmond chess community. Recently, the West Coast Chess Alliance was formed to continue the association’s past efforts, and expand the teaching of chess to kids in all of West Contra Costa County, not just Richmond. With the help of McKinley Williams, the former president of Contra Costa College, the group is now running four community chess tournaments throughout the year. The first tournament of 2013 will be sometime in late April or early May.

Ball’s weekly community chess gatherings aim to teach people the basics of the game, while also encouraging a greater appreciation for it. “My philosophy is using chess to promote academic excellence,” he said. “All the research is there to say it can be a valuable enrichment tool.”

For Ball, chess is an opportunity to help kids refine their critical thinking skills, while also helping them in the classroom. “Studies have been done about the transfer of chess to academic achievement,” Ball said. “I believe you can teach kids how to think.”

When the most recent chess night began, Ball stood next to an easel and wrote down key words like “check,” “checkmate” and “stalemate” to discuss with the kids and adults in attendance. He asked them to define the terms, and with each right answer, Ball would respond, “Correct.” When one child struggled, Ball told her, “Trust yourself. Trust what you are saying.”

Ball also had a separate easel with a large chessboard on it so he, and the attendees, could demonstrate the concepts and strategy of the game. “If you really understand stalemate, and you get in a losing position, you can still get a draw out of it,” Ball said as he illustrated how to cause a stalemate on the board. “You can use the rules of chess against your opponent.”

Ball said that many young kids are often intimidated by chess and what he call its “positive stigma,” meaning that they believe only smart people play it. Ball is trying to give the eager kids who attend on Friday nights the chance to learn the tactical side of the game, while also letting them play for fun. “That’s what chess is all about,” Ball said. “Learn theory, and use it to your advantage.”

As Saucer and Strong went back and forth, at another table Newell Walker, 60, and Shanylei Hamilton, 7, were playing a much more subdued match. Walker, who has been friends with Ball since the second grade, was trying to teach Hamilton how to record a chess match by writing down the move of each player.

“The biggest thing I like about this is the kids,” said Walker, when he had a moment to take a break from his game. “I want to get these kids thinking. That is what it is all about.”

As the evening wound down, and the participants turned in their chessboards and chess pieces, only Ball and Walker remained. Ball collected the chess equipment, and carefully stuffed it into a duffel bag. With the materials in hand, the longtime friends walked through the hallway of the recreational building, and out the door, into the cool evening air.

Family Chess Knight takes place every Friday at the Richmond Recreation Department (3230 Macdonald Avenue, Richmond) from 6:00-8:30 p.m. For more information contact: T.C. Ball at (510) 439-6311.

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