KEOKUK — The Tri-State Chess Club, which meets Monday nights in Hy-Vee, covers a lot of ground and history, but started humble, as most stories do in a Hamilton church.
An active teenager, Stan Felgar remembers running to the local church in Hamilton to meet his best friend, Arnie Gatton. The two would sit in the basement of the church and play chess. “Arnie was playing against two chessboards simultaneously,” Stan recalled, “and he was beating them both.”
As their friendship deepened over the years, their love of chess also increased. Sometimes Gatton and Felgar met in the morning to play a little game of chess before leaving for work. “Sometimes, if our games lasted long,” Felgar smiled sheepishly, “we’d even be a little late for work.”
In 1995 Felgar, Gatton and a few other friends started the Tri-State Chess Club. The club first met weekly in the Country Kitchen, moved to the Keokuk Library, and eventually settled at the Hy-Vee in Keokuk. “Hy-Vee has been very accommodating,” said Jason Sparrow, a Keokuk native who joined the club in 1997. “They don’t charge us for using the space, so I always try to buy something thing when we walk in.”
People of all ages and skill levels are welcome to join the club. There is no charge to become a member or to attend Chess Night. People come from Carthage to Argyle, from Hannibal to Burlington to play a few hours of chess every Monday.
The club announces tournaments and organizes trips. Historically, there have been tournaments in Burlington, Des Moines, Pella, and more recently at the Lee County Fair. Additionally, the club is carpooling for a tournament in Quad Cities on August 6.
On Monday night, the Hy-Vee food court was buzzing with pairs seated around chessboards. Chess clocks that started and stopped dotted the air. Some members floated between the tables, openly discussing hits and mistakes. Players enjoyed conversations about their games.
Club newcomer Jonathan Aitchison, 17, of Nauvoo, played longtime club member Sam Naylor of Carthage. “Yeah, he’s older,” Stan gestured to Naylor, “but he shows up, and he beats everyone. He’s been an asset to our club.” Jonathan’s girlfriend, KC Torgerson, and Skip , from Burlington, watched them play.
Torgerson, 18, from Nauvoo, who started playing chess six months ago, loves the challenge of the game and yearns to beat her boyfriend, Jonathan.
Lawrence Barrett from Keokuk brought his 12-year-old nephew Hyrum Prete to the club to introduce him to the local players and their styles. Prete played Bob Beelman, 68, of Fort Madison.
Amber Riley, 35, who moved to Keokuk less than a week ago, sat at a booth with Sparrow. “I think I first learned chess in middle school history class,” Riley said, “but this is my first time learning to play.” Longtime friends Sparrow invited Riley to the club to show him a part of Keokuk he loves.
Sparrow only put a few pieces on the board to help Riley get to grips with the movements of each piece. “With lots of games and regular hits from Stan, Sam and Arnie, I’m starting to get a little bit better,” he said. “I recently started watching old masters and game reviews. It helped me learn so much more.
The 27 years since the Tri-State Chess Club was founded has brought all kinds of changes for club members. “We’ve probably had about five pages of people coming and going over the years,” Felgar said. In 2004, Gatton underwent open-heart surgery. Stan uses a cane and wears hearing aids in both ears. But, as the body of the founders ages, their minds remain sharp. “You need a game that helps your mind,” Felgar said, “Chess is that for us.”
As Felgar prepared to leave for the night, he reiterated the club’s goal: “It was done for fun and practice,” he said. “It creates great rivalries and even better friendships.”
Felgar’s favorite thing about chess? “My best friend got me started.”
The Tri-State Chess Club meets at Keokuk Hy-Vee on Mondays from 6-10 p.m.