Eric Zhao faced a dilemma during a recent meeting of the chess club at Hardin Valley Academy.
The sophomore wanted to do well, but on this occasion he was sitting across the board from a high-profile visitor: HVA principal Sallee Reynolds.
He didn’t want to make her feel bad, but the tournament-tested Zhao was able to prevail against Reynolds, who hadn’t played in decades. Thankfully for him, the longtime HVA principal is a good sport – and a firm believer that chess club and similar activities give a boost to students.
“It’s confidence,” she said later. “They realize that I can do this and I do this well and people respect me and come to me and ask me how to do this.”
Chess is in the global spotlight this month, with the World Championship in London pitting three-time winner Magnus Carlsen of Norway against American challenger Fabiano Caruana.
For students like Zhao, the sport is both an outlet for competition and an opportunity to lead.
An advocate of the French Defense, Zhao typically plays in a passive style at tournaments because he’s so often matched up against higher-rated players. He said the French, in which an opening e4 pawn is countered by a black e6, forces his opponents to develop their position more slowly.
But at the HVA chess club, he’s able to be more forward-leaning. Amanda Danson, a special-education teacher and sponsor of the club, said Zhao heads up a weekly lesson for other players, analyzing moves and talking strategy.
“It’s been really cool for me to be able to sit back and just learn from them,” she said of the students.
Following his match against Reynolds, Zhao displayed the game on a classroom smart board and helped other club members analyze the moves that had been played, at one point noting that moving a pawn to the h3 square wasn’t ideal because it didn’t open up space for other pieces to develop.
The opportunity for students to step forward has also been evident at Bearden High School, where junior Jesse Mullins is president of the chess club.
William Schult, the club’s sponsor and a physics teacher at Bearden, said he’s noticed that interest in the club largely comes down to good leadership.
“There are so many people who are interested in chess but they don’t know where to go and there’s no contact for them,” he said. “And over the last 10 years here, what I’ve noticed is that if I have a strong leader like Jesse, people will go to him and he’ll contact them and then they’ll just start showing up.”
Mullins learned the game from his father and has been playing since the third grade. He said he prefers an aggressive playing style with quick moves, a lot of trades and rapid progress: “I enjoy endgame, when there’s fewer pieces,” he added.
While a tournament like the World Championship is a serious, silent affair, with lots of staring and thinking, the vibe at clubs like Hardin Valley and Bearden is vastly different, with conversation and laughter punctuating the moves.
Asked what he enjoys about the sport, Mullins said it’s entertaining to see how many different ways you can approach a game.
“I just love the ability to talk to people, get to know them while you play, and just the match of wits and different strategies that you can use,” he said.
Josh Flory is a multi-media specialist with Knox County Schools and writes the blog Hall Pass for the KCS website.