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Global 'chess boom' ripples through western Massachusetts

Two fifth graders sit across from each other at a desk, a chess board between them. Nicole Davis, left, and Tae'la Feliciano are both members of the Cheetah Chess Club at McMahon Elementary School in Holyoke, Massachusetts. In this picture, they play chess against each other on May 2, 2024.
Dusty Christensen
Two fifth graders sit across from each other at a desk, a chess board between them. Nicole Davis, left, and Tae'la Feliciano are both members of the Cheetah Chess Club at McMahon Elementary School in Holyoke, Massachusetts. In this picture, they play chess against each other on May 2, 2024.

Normally, Alex Cespedes' classroom is filled with fourth and fifth graders learning science and social studies. But on Thursdays, after classes let out, students at McMahon Elementary School in Holyoke, Massachusetts, pour into the room for a different reason: to do battle.

“That’s actually a very good move,” Rodman Parvin, who co-facilitates the after-school club the kids are all excited about, explained to two students on an afternoon in early May. “Because now it’s check again. And it’s a double attack.”

This is the Cheetah Chess Club, which Cespedes and Parvin started earlier this year. Despite the spring weather coaxing students outdoors, 16 kids showed up that day to push pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, queens and kings around the board. For some players, like Nicole Davis, chess is new. She and fellow fifth grader Tae'la Feliciano are moving pieces across the board, not worried too much about the rules. Others have been playing longer, like fifth grader JJ Rodriguez. He can confidently explain why he plays the Dutch Defense with the black pieces.

"The rook, bishop and knight are all lined up on the inside,” he said. “Because they are the stronger pieces."

'Like a virus right now'

In recent years, there has been an upswell in worldwide interest in chess. For example, the website Chess.com's servers repeatedly crashed last year under the weight of millions of new players gravitating to the game. It's a trend that started in 2020 with COVID lockdowns and the hit Netflix show “The Queen's Gambit,” and has continued as chess influencers get big on social media.

And that global "chess boom" has sent shockwaves through western Massachusetts, too, including at McMahon Elementary.

"It's kind of like a virus right now,” Cespedes said, who sees students playing everywhere in school now. “If there's any still or free time, they're like, 'Can I have the chess set? I will protect it with my life. I just want to play chess with my friends.’ And beat all the teachers. That's what they really want to do."

Chess clubs in local libraries and other schools have grown in size, too. Sophie Argetsinger is the parent of a second grader at Northampton's Lander-Grinspoon Academy. She grew up in the vibrant chess scene in Rochester, New York. So when Lander-Grinspoon approached her last year about running a chess club at the school, she was excited.

"The first time I held it there was like 20 kids who signed up, which is crazy because there's only about 60 kids at the school in total," she said.

Those numbers have shrunk a bit. But Argetsinger has organized two tournaments at the school in the past year and more students than she expected — from around the region — turned up to play.

“That might have a lot to do with the online presence,” she said of the game's growing popularity locally. “There’s a lot of chess creators now that are making chess kind of cool and something everyone can engage with.”

'They thought it was a nerdy thing'

Ed Kostreba has been organizing chess tournaments in the region for around a quarter century. He directs the Western Massachusetts Chess Association, which last year had 308 people play in its tournaments. That's more than any year since 1996, the year the world's media focused its attention on Russian grandmaster Gary Kasparov as he beat the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue – a quaint notion nowadays, when computers are much stronger players than humans.

Kostreba said, back then, the association used to hold around six tournaments a year. That number has now doubled. He is hoping for even more growth in the coming years. However, he and others say there are challenges to keeping chess thriving locally.

"It's tough because you have to get venues that are reasonable,” Kostreba said. “I'm working on a tournament where we collect entry fees, and paying back 80% as prizes. So that's tough to do, and at some places the rents have gone way up and we can't do it."

On a recent afternoon, Kostreba was playing chess at the Friends of the Homeless shelter in Springfield, where he volunteers weekly

Sitting across the board from Kostreba was Jay Williams, who has been playing chess for 25 years. He originally learned the game in the correctional system and says he has seen more people playing in recent years — and a more diverse group of players, too.

"A lot of people are definitely interested in chess,” Williams said between moves. “I would say when I was young in junior high school, people wasn't really all that. They thought it was a nerdy thing. But now I would say it's a cool thing now."

Fierce competition

The chess boom has also hit home — for me. After decades away from the game, I found myself returning to it during the pandemic. And somebody else in my family took notice: my 6-year-old daughter, Sasha. She kept seeing me playing on my phone and computer and soon insisted I teach her.

If I had guessed, I would have said she fell in love with chess because of the game's beauty. The stunning tactics and complicated dance between pieces. But when I asked her, it was much more simple.

"Winning against Daddy,” she said with a big laugh. “The guy who always losed against me."

Dusty Christensen is an investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He currently teaches news writing and reporting at UMass Amherst.