Benu Rellan: The Huntington Chess Club has a rich history | Features/Entertainment

Every Saturday…

The Renaissance hall of the YMCA vibrates. A dozen heads bent over tables on which rest chessboards. Not the ornately sculpted boards of Netflix fame, but the type of flat vinyl approved by the American Chess Federation. The type that comes with 34 weighted pieces, again, according to the USCF, and can be rolled up like a yoga mat and worn over the shoulder. 20 inches by 20 inches. Aside from the occasional tapping of chess clocks, the room is mostly silent.

It’s the Huntington YMCA Chess Club.

The club is 100 years old. It met as early as the 1920s in a hotel in Huntington.

The old metal cupboard that stores club boards, clocks and scraps of newspaper articles, score sheets, old chess books and periodicals contains a few items from that era.

By the 1950s, the club was firmly rooted in the YMCA. These were the days of Siegfried Werthammer, MD, who won 13 state championships, a record that has yet to be broken. Dr. Werthammer was active with the club until his death in 1978. Around this time, Mark Hathaway, an incredibly gifted player who had come to Huntington to attend Marshall University, joined the club.

The 1980s welcomed Dan O’Halnon to the club. O’Hanlon won the United States Department of Justice Championship in 1977 and the Marshall University Chess Championship in 1979.

In the early 1990s, Hathaway began unofficially coaching O’Hanlon. In 1993, O’Hanlon won the US Amateur Tag Team Championship and made the cover of Chess Life magazine (big business in the chess world).

Subsequently, Hathaway, a newly minted national master (another big deal in the chess world), won the state championships seven times, the only person in state history to even approach the record of Dr. Werthammer.

At the top of his game, according to Hathaway, he “set to work on a new tactic to learn more about chess”. Working on a new system, a new understanding of the game and intending to pass it on. He is one of those rare individuals with a teacher’s heart.

In the early 2000s, Hathaway was hired by Columbus Alternative High School to coach their chess team. Under his tutelage, the team won two national championships and appeared in major tournaments in Chicago, Minneapolis, Nashville, Orlando, Houston and Columbus.

Back at the club, Hathaway also mentored two members. Around 2019, he recalls that he “was ready to quit”. However, O’Hanlon, who had been with Hathaway at the club for over 20 years, had another idea. He told Hathaway he knew a kid who needed teaching.

Boylin learned chess on Saturday mornings with his grandfather, Dev Rellan, MD In fourth and fifth years at Our Lady of Fatima, he was in a small student chess club, led by John Brewster, another member of the club. O’Hanlon was at Rellan’s house one Saturday morning and challenged Boylin, then 11, to a game of chess. Sure, he beat him, but O’Hanlon recognized the talent and passion he himself had as a young chess player and still has today. He invited Boylin to attend the club.

In early spring 2019, Boylin went to the club for the first time for a few hours.

The following Saturday he left for a few more hours. In March, O’Hanlon suggested that John compete in the 50th West Virginia Chess Association Championship for grades K-5. Boylin finished tied at three for second place, but as an unranked player he placed fourth. A few months later, in September 2019, Boylin won the West Virginia Junior (21 and under) championship. At the age of 11, he was the youngest player to do so. In 2020, Boylin represented the state in the Dewain Barber National Tournament of Middle School State Champions.

Most recently, on August 14, Boylin won the West Virginia Summer Open.

The club’s rich mentorship history sets it apart from other chess clubs in the country, which exist primarily to provide a place to play chess. Yet Hathaway piloted the educational aspect of the club. During the six or more hours the club puts together each week, several hours are devoted to reviewing matches – matches played by club members in tournaments or matches played by Grandmasters in the 1930s, 1929 or the last week, in Russia or Cincinnati; if the scores of a chess match have been recorded, at some point the club will review them. With a few members on either side of the board and Hathaway standing at their shoulders, every move is analyzed, discussed, approved.

In addition to invaluable teaching, club members, past and present, show incredible generosity. O’Hanlon gave his entire chess library – hundreds upon hundreds of books, combed through and annotated by him over five decades – to Boylin. Greg Hardin, a former member of the club who currently resides in North Carolina, recently shipped his entire chess library to the club for Boylin. The few books written in German were given to another member of the club, John Sefton, to be sold. The proceeds were given to Boylin to cover tournament expenses.

The generosity of the YMCA has played a significant role in the evolution of the club, providing a home for the band, Hathaway’s giant trophy and that metal cabinet containing the club’s history stash. Despite renovations and expansions, the Y has provided a meeting place for the club. More recently, the Y granted the club regular use of its vast Renaissance hall.

The relationship between the Y and the club is a great example of community.

Full disclosure: John is my son. The club calls me “Chess Mom”. “The Guys” (as I call them) forgive my noisy entrances and exits, my lack of understanding of the intricacies of the game, and my clumsy efforts to talk chess. This group of chess fanatics carry the century-old torch of friendship, mentorship, and pure love of the game. This group not only welcomed a child, but embraced it.

I had no idea competitive chess existed until The Guys told me and urged John to participate. Hathaway is the head coach, O’Hanlon the wise counsel. Both are bottomless pits for chess history, strategy and talent.

But although they are definitely the leaders of the club, the club functions as a group. Every member of the club taught, challenged and encouraged John. This group provided not only knowledge and advice, but also a section of encouragement that rivals any I have seen.

The other members of the club have stories. I only know John’s. I intend to find out more. The club, this gem, exemplifies what I love about Huntington – the connections, the community, the generosity.

Outside a chess tournament in Lexington, Kentucky, I was stopped by a man I had seen observing players, including my son. He asked if my son needed a chess coach. I replied, “No thanks. He has nine” – Mark Hathaway, Dan O’Hanlon, Andrew Thomas, Elijah Shultz, Andrew Bergquist, Carl Hudson, John Sefton, Greg Kuhn and Salisbury Filbert, to be exact.

All can be found at the YMCA Chess Club every Saturday.

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