A few things led to the Catholic High School chess club winning the state tournament: the pandemic, a popular Netflix miniseries -- and the hidden chess talents of its students.
“I was shocked at how good some of these guys were,” said chess club sponsor Steve Aday, English and religion teacher, alumni director and 2002 alumnus of the Little Rock school. “I’m fair to good. I’m perfectly adequate. I can give some of these guys a good challenge, but they beat me all the time.”
Catholic High has had chess clubs in the past that dissipated as participation waned. Aday, who has played chess since he was in third grade, said it was time for a rebirth.
“So I just thought with the virtual (learning) and everything else going on and because there were so few opportunities for clubs to be able to be together, to participate, to do normal stuff, I thought doing a chess club through chess.com would be an easy way for the guys to have camaraderie with one another,” Aday said. “It was ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ on Netflix which inspired me and everyone else in the world to get back into chess.”
According to a CNN.com article Dec. 6, the Netflix show starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the fictional Beth Harmon, a Kentucky orphan who conquers the male-dominated world of chess in the 1960s while battling addictions to pills and alcohol, has spurred a surge of interest in the classic game. Chess.com added 3.2 million members after the series premiered on the streaming service in October. Chess set sales skyrocketed by 87 percent in the U.S., and sales of chess books jumped 603 percent three weeks after the show’s debut.
While Aday admits most students likely have little interest in that period drama, the club has sparked a lot of interest. About 67 students participate in the club through online game play at chess.com. Games, which can last 10 to 15 minutes, or “if you’re not any good, I can beat you in four moves,” Aday quipped, are played nightly. Skill levels range from new to experienced players, with chess.com providing lessons. Aday said about 90 percent of students in the club have played before. The club meets in person on Wednesdays.
“My dad taught me when I was about 5 years old, and I kind of just fell in love with the game,” said 16-year-old sophomore Caleb Collins. “I've been playing pretty much my whole life. Mostly online, because I got too good to where my parents don't want to play me anymore.”
Collins, who won fourth in the state tournament April 10, has played daily for years.
“I like that you can get creative with how you move your pieces ... it's just fun,” Collins said. “You can get creative with different sacrifices with your pieces to try and checkmate the opponent.”
Twelve Catholic High students participated in the regional Chess Association for Arkansas Schools tournament. Eight of them -- Collins, Tatum Howard, Jackson Smith, Enzo Cordova-Page, Anthony Hailey, Lucas Ortiz, Walker Cunningham and Mason Walsh -- went to the state 4A-7A tournament April 10, competing against 67 students. Five CHS students finished in the top 10 overall, and Ortiz won the tournament as well as MVP.
Ortiz said he learned the game as a child but didn’t start playing regularly until last December, his interest sparked by his friends and after watching “The Queen’s Gambit.” He admitted he improved “because this guy (Collins) beat me so many times when I first started playing.”
“I was a little surprised,” the 18-year-old senior said of his state win, “because in the regional tournament, I did not win ... I lost a game, and so I knew that there were some really strong players that were going to be playing in the tournament, playing in the field, so I guess that combination of some skill and some luck, I managed to win.”
Sixty-five students competed in a CHS club tournament, with a March-Madness-style bracket that will end mid-May.
“Without question it’s the strategy behind the game,” Aday said of the life lessons students can take away from chess. “Planning certain things out, playing the long game. All those things go into life when you’re thinking ahead. They have to plan so many steps ahead in their life instead of just the next move they’re going to make.”
Collins and Ortiz both agree creativity and strategy will serve them well in the future.
“Another skill is being able to think under pressure, critical thinking, as well as snap decision- making, which are both important skills, depending on what area of life, what profession you want to be in life,” Ortiz said.
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