Local scholastic chess clubs growing in popularity

Brett Thackeray
Lewistown scholastic chess clubs facilitator
Kids crowd around a long table lined with chess boards as a middle-aged male teacher makes moves as the competitor.

Facilitator Brett Thackeray, takes on three challengers at once - known in chess as a “simul.”

Photo courtesy of Brett Thackeray

Four years ago I asked the principal of Lewis and Clark Elementary if I could meet with interested students after school to study and play chess. She said yes. Today I find myself facilitating five hours of chess “club” every week spread over three schools - and it just keeps growing.

What started as roughly eight fifth-graders learning how to perform a chess opening once a week has become a dozen or more fifth and sixth graders every Thursday after school attempting to out-flank each other with knights and bishops; six to 12 junior high students twice a week challenging each other to 15 minute “fast chess” games; and about a dozen high-schoolers forgetting to eat their lunch while they push pawns into enemy territory.

“This is great,” exclaimed Vice Principal Jeff Friesen upon seeing what all the commotion was about in the Fergus High School lobby during lunch last Wednesday. The kids were crowding around to watch the action and signing up to play.

The ancient game of chess is enjoying a revival in our contemporary society. Chess is thought to have originated in India, some time before the seventh century, having derived from the Indian game of strategy called chaturanga. By the 15th century chess had spread to Spain and received new pieces with distinct powers and by the 19th century the rules of chess had been standardized to what we know and use today.

Organized scholastic chess - chess played by players 18 and under - began in the United States during the early 1970s due to the “Fischer Boom.” At age 15, Bobby Fischer became both the youngest grandmaster up to that time and the youngest candidate for the World Championship. In 1972 he captured the World Chess Championship from Boris Spassky of the USSR. Many consider Fischer to be the best chess player of all time. He certainly sparked a public interest in the game in this country.

According to the US Chess Federation “every year, several hundred thousand boys and girls take part in local competitions, and tens of thousands of them participate in officially rated tournaments or matches sanctioned by US Chess.” In fact, the SuperNationals - an event which brings the three top scholastic chess championships together once every four years - was held in Nashville, Tennessee back in 2013 and boasted 5,335 participants. It is considered the largest chess tournament in the world.

Chess is also widely thought to be very good for developing young minds. Some of the many claims to the benefits of studying chess regularly are that it develops memory and logical thinking, improves concentration, promotes imagination and creativity, teaches independence and planning and inspires self-motivation. It is easy to learn, yet extremely difficult to master. Every match is unique yet many concepts and positions are repeated. And it is accessible: it doesn’t cost much; in fact one could make their own game pieces from a sheet of paper and pencil, and it takes very little space.

We offered a scholastic tournament in Lewistown last year and dubbed it the First Annual Lewistown Scholastic. We held it in October at the Junior High School auditorium. It attracted 22 students from Browning, Billings and Lewistown. That event was a great success and this year we’ll hold our 2nd Annual Lewistown Scholastic on Saturday, Oct. 22 at the LJHS. Sponsors who would like to donate prizes or cash contributions, volunteers who want to help run the event and players 18 and under who know the rules of chess are all encouraged to contact the event coordinator, Brett Thackeray, at 350-0170. Quiet spectators are welcome to stop by and see what it’s all about.

Chess continues to grow in popularity here in Lewistown as it does across the globe. If you would like to help out or be a part of it, please reach out and volunteer. The kids will appreciate you and you’ll probably have fun as well. Your move!


Brett Thackery is the facilitator for the Lewistown scholastic chess clubs.



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