The New Bay View Knights Chess Club in Milwaukee attracts players of all ages
In an instant Sunday afternoon, empty chairs and cushions were waiting on Olga Thomas’ lawn in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood.
In the next, enthusiastic chess enthusiasts and beginners arrived, taking their seats, setting up their chessboards and diving into the games.
It was the second meeting of the new Bay View Knights chess club, started by Thomas after he inquired in a neighborhood Facebook group about area chess clubs for his 14-year-old son.
Or maybe, she writes, someone would like to stop by her house on East Oklahoma Avenue for a game.
The response has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Thomas said. Hundreds of people responded offering to play or saying they had always wanted to learn.
“Watching all these messages come in, I realized this would have to be an organized event. There was no way to track everything,” she said.
“So within a week we had a logo, a brand, a chess club, chess tables, chess boards and a scheduled event,” she said.
The first event drew about 50 people, Thomas said. She knew some of the attendees, but others were complete strangers who had seen the event on Facebook and wanted to stop by.
At the event on Sunday, 9-year-old Cristian Palacios from Brookfield arrived with his dad Julian looking for new competitors and a fun weekend activity.
“It’s my favorite thing to do,” Cristian said as he set up his board.
Thomas warmly greeted everyone who approached the bustling patio, led them to tables and helped them settle in with partners. Within minutes, she welcomed a dad who had won against her last week and a student who had just started learning how to gamble online.
‘Safe space’ as COVID wanes
“I think coming out of COVID, everyone is craving social interaction, and this event creates a safe space for people to meet and do something fun,” she said.
Thomas is also quick to point out the benefits of chess itself: it allows players to focus, use their creativity, and see the consequences of their actions.
She is proud to share the game she grew up playing with her father in Romania, and she is happy to see the diversity among the club participants.
“At the last event, I was watching a 9-year-old player play with a 60-year-old player. These two people are two people who normally wouldn’t have a conversation in everyday life,” Thomas said. “We we can all learn from each other.”
Peter Bolgert, a chess coach at Bay View College, heard about the new club and lent Thomas 10 chess sets. He stopped by on Sunday to watch a few games and play some of his own.
“With the pandemic, not much is happening. It’s really nice to meet and play games with people in person. It’s more fun than playing online or playing against the computer,” Bolgert said.
Aside from a “serious club” at Hales Corners, there aren’t many options for adults who want to play, he said.
“Milwaukee doesn’t have a very active chess scene,” Bolgert said. “Finding a chess game in the city of Milwaukee isn’t easy if you’re not a kid.”
Thomas envisions a Milwaukee with more chess fans and more opportunities to play — similar to the thriving chess world depicted in Netflix hit “The Queen’s Gambit,” with residents presiding over games in the park.
Inspired by the same scenes from her own youth, Thomas plans to have Milwaukee County Parks place cement tables in a Bay View park.
For now, the club will continue all summer in its front yard. After that, it will need a new interior home and a new organizer.
Anyone aged 7 and over can attend the club, which is held from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. every other Sunday. See more details on the Bay View Knights Chess Club page on Facebook.
Thomas is also hosting an event called “Chess by Candlelight” for adults from 8-11 p.m. Friday.
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