Chess Club Plays on With Renewed Funding

12.18.11 In an article appearing in the December 8th edition of the online journal Village Soup Ethan Andrews tells the story of the Belfast Free Library Chess Club now back in business after a brief hiatus. We bring you the story in its entirety.

Isobel Kelly, bottom left, and Sidney Sanders concentrate on a match while instructor Russell Khan, top right, talks strategy with other young players during a Monday night chess club session at the Belfast Free Library. The club was revived recently after a temporary loss of funding. Photo by: Ethan Andrews

Belfast -- After a six-week layoff and subsequent scramble for funding, the Belfast Chess Club, a weekly recreational youth group, has picked up where it left off.

At a Monday, Nov. 28 session for advanced players, held on the third floor of the Belfast Free Library, that meant some pick-up games, socializing and a brief lesson on pins and skewers.

Instructor Russell Khan went through the basics of those tactics, both of which involve capturing an opponent's piece by trapping it against the king. When it came to the skewer, he invoked the image of a shish kebab.

"Russell, that's very violent," said Kirk Stillman, a third-grader and one of the younger students in the group. His tone was deadpan, but the comment appeared to be meant as a joke.

"Welcome to the world of chess," said Khan.

Khan started the Belfast Chess Club around five years ago with funding from an anonymous donor working through the library board of trustees. This fall, however, participants learned that the normal funding would not be available. Early reports suggested the donor wanted the club to be held at a different location, but Khan said these were incorrect.

"It wasn't whether we could move somewhere else or not, it was going to end," he said, adding that the donor simply could not pay for the program.

Ultimately the city and Friends of the Belfast Free Library chipped in to foot the bill this year, and Khan said some parents have committed to doing fundraising to keep the program going.

Khan, who teaches art at Camden Hills Regional High School, ran chess programs in the former SAD 34 school district prior to starting the chess club at the library. Later he started a high school chess team in Camden. Otherwise, he said, the Belfast Chess Club may be the only one of its kind in Waldo or Knox Counties.

For aspiring chess players, having one club is better than none, but Khan said the downside is there's no local competition. The club competes at the annual state tournament but is typically outclassed by players from parts of the state that have more active chess programs.

Khan has considered bringing Belfast players to compete in Hancock County where there are several well-established and competitive programs. The closest of these meets on a weekday afternoon, which means scheduling has been difficult, but Khan said he's still looking for a way to make it happen.

"It ups the ante, instead of playing the same players all the time," he said.

The weekly meetings of the chess club at the Belfast Free Library are free and open to anyone with an interest in chess. There are two groups, one for beginning players -- Khan said the youngest is 4 years old, adding that there's no minimum age as long as the child is interested -- and one for more advanced players.

Khan said the group is seeking more players -- at Monday night's session, there were roughly a dozen in the first group and eight in the second.

At the end of the evening, 16-year-old Patrick Thayer, the oldest current member of the club, stayed behind and helped clean up the room, which doubles as the library's conference room.

Last year Thayer won the novice high school division at the state tournament. His go-to opening involves pushing the knight's pawns to allow the bishops out, a flanking offensive position called a "fianchetto," or "little flank," in Italian. He said he is still working out how to use his knights.

Khan, who has been playing since he was Thayer's age, said he can quickly visualize all the squares on the board where a knight could move, and expressed some pride in his ability to trap opponents with knight forks, in which the knight attacks two pieces simultaneously. But this kind of pattern recognition takes time to develop, he said.

Often students move on to other things, but Khan said the club gives them a chance to learn some of the implicit lessons of chess along the way -- analytical thinking and strategy -- and also to benefit from lessons not directly related to the game, like learning to be a good sport, win or lose.

"It's a game that teaches you that if you make a bad move, there's a consequence," he said. "And that's kind of a metaphor for life."

Thayer, who had finished stacking chairs and had taken a seat next to Khan, elaborated. "It can also teach you not to give up when you make a big mistake," he said. "I've won games even though I lost my queen."

Post a comment

  • Navigation: