Chess club an ego check, place to make friends | Local News
John Dolly played thousands of chess games in his lifetime. He still can’t get rid of the feeling that the player on the other side of the table knows a little more than he does.
“It’s one of the most nerve-wracking things, sitting against someone I’ve never played before,” he said. “It’s not like an arm wrestling match or a bench press competition. It’s a brain skill test. Even as an adult, when I sit across from another adult in a tournament, I’m almost terrified, shaking and broken, because I don’t know how it’s going to be.
For nearly 30 years, Dolly taught students in the Gettysburg Area School District to play chess and, therefore, to experience humility. He started coaching in 1993 while working for his family business at Round Top Campground, five years before becoming a high school math teacher.
Since then, he has worked with dozens of Gettysburg students, teaching complex opening and ending game strategies and replaying games to resolve past mistakes.
A few hours a week, 10 to 12 students meet in her classroom after school to do exercises, play games and chat. In a normal year, dozens more would flock to play during a school resource period. Unfortunately, pandemic procedures have put a temporary end to the 50 free-for-all players.
Dolly enjoys seeing students from different backgrounds compete on a neutral playing field. More often than not, his familiarity brings out quirky personality traits that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Some of the best players may not have the charisma of a star athlete or a theater performer, but they’re just as confident in their abilities, Dolly said.
“A lot of kids who are very good at chess are pretty moderate in life,” he said. “There’s a stigma with kids in chess clubs that they’re smart, geeky kids, but they’re so terribly interesting and quirky and funny. When they get together, they talk about everything and troll each other. is so enjoyable and fun.
Last fall, many Americans learned about the game which has existed in its current form since the 15th century thanks to the Netflix show, “The Queen’s Gambit”. The show based on the fictional novel by Walter Tevis follows the life of Beth Harmon, an orphaned chess prodigy.
The seven-episode miniseries tackles love, addiction, racism, and poverty, but also spends a lot of time focusing on characters who simply stare at a chessboard with no tension lost.
Dolly and other area chess coaches binge-watched the series, noting how beautifully and above all accurately the show reflects the energy of the competitions. The internal conflict of each movement felt familiar.
“It shows how confident you can be in something and at the same time be very hesitant or reluctant,” he said. “She’s a conscious young woman who takes personal risks, (like) going out on her own to sign up for a tournament not knowing what she’s getting into.”
The boards reflect real strategic puzzles, allowing for greater commiseration with the characters, he said.
“In the middle of a game you’ll see positions where you thought you had or saw something and it turns out your opponent had a little wrinkle that you didn’t anticipate,” he said.
For the benefit of the viewer, moves in the show are done faster on screen than they would be in a real tournament, Dolly said. Most matches at the highest levels give each player 90 minutes to two hours to consider moves.
On Saturday, nearly 30 middle and high school children in Waynesboro, Upper Adams and Conewago Valley made themselves vulnerable by participating in an annual round-robin chess tournament, held this year at Biglerville High School. Gettysburg students also competed, challenging their opponents online.
In a pandemic-altered format, players each had 25 minutes to complete their moves before the game ended.
At the end of each in-person game, the players sanitized their rooms and reported their results to the instructors, who lined up the next game. The top five players from each district played outdoors, an official tournament to determine the best of the group. A reserve tournament also allowed more novice players to work on their skills.
Cole Gureckis, a junior from New Oxford, started playing chess with his grandfather. Together they worked against a computer simulation, thinking about their movements aloud before continuing. Over the past few years, he has become one of the best players in his school.
“I like the challenge and the strategy that comes with it,” he said. “Having to use your brain to figure out the steps that will make you stand out is fun.”
Coming together to play the same teams created rivalries, he said, adding that he was always working on openings to better face Waynesboro’s Nathan Zeigler.
Marley Hess, one of two girls in the tournament on Saturday, plays in the reserves bracket for New Oxford. Although she is still beaten by some of New Oxford’s top players, she knows she is improving because the games require more moves, she takes more coins, and she recognizes the pitfalls she was falling into.
Alejandro Salazar-Valdez, a student from Biglerville, said visualizing how chess pieces support each other also helps him strategize in team games in other areas of life.
Most players surveyed preferred the look of a board to online play. On a computer, a swipe of a finger can perform an involuntary movement, Salazar-Valdez said. Being able to analyze the attitude and gaze of the opponent as they look over the board is also helpful, he said.
In a typical year, the strongest players from the regional tournaments would move on to the state competition, held in recent years at the Allstar Sports and Event Complex. No such tournament will take place this year due to pandemic precautions. This did not dull the enthusiasm of county chess players.
“Chess is a good thing,” Salazar-Valdez said. “You can hang out with people and see people you probably wouldn’t have met otherwise. It’s a great way to make friends.