Chess is played everywhere. From city parks to royal courts, people of every age, gender and skill level can be found pondering their next move. According to a 2012 YouGov poll, 605 million people worldwide know the rules.
“The art of chess is so amazing; it is so fun and so beautiful,” Inland Chess Academy’s John Dill II said. “It is inexhaustable.”
“Young children and adults … boys and girls play as equals,” said St. George’s chess coach James Stripes. “There aren’t many competitive activities where that’s the case.”
Dill and Stripes, who will host Spokane County’s longest-running annual chess tournament on Saturday, as part of Deer Park’s Winterfest, are among the dedicated coaches, mentors and students working to get chess back in Spokane area schools.
“We are in all the private schools, and we’re just beginning to make inroads in public schools,” Dill said. “Our goal is to put chess in every elementary school, in every home.”
It won’t be easy. Chess, once a fixture in Spokane’s public schools, is now an afterthought.
Stripes brought the state chess championship to Spokane in 2009.
“We had a thousand players from the state of Washington,” he said. “We had three kids from District 81.”
Dill and Stripes booked the 2015 state tournament at the Spokane Convention Center. “We had 1,100 students … 3,800 parents and siblings,” Dill said. “We had an $80,000 budget; they estimate that we brought in $2 million to the community.”
Stripes said there was maybe five students from Spokane Public Schools.
“I thought that should embarrass the school district, but nobody even knew about it,” he said. “There’s a communication gap.”
Dill taught chess in the Phoenix school system. “I don’t know of a single elementary school that didn’t have a chess club,” he said. “We had over 5,000 students.”
Dill and his wife, Cecelia Valeriote, moved to Spokane in 2010. “We only saw one scholastic chess program running,” Dill said.
So, Dill tried to bring the Arizona program to Spokane.
“I told myself, ‘We’ll just make a visit to the public schools superintendent’s office,’ ” he said. “We’ll set up similar to what we had in Phoenix.”
Valeriote said when they were in Phoenix, they worked for a chess company.
“The owner just sat down with the school boards. It was as simple as that,” she said. “They just went for it.”
But Washington isn’t Arizona. Dill ran into resistance on several fronts, from policymakers to lawmakers. “So, we set up our program in all the private schools.”
“We have a variety of things that we are doing around chess in public schools,” said Lisa White, director of Express and After School Programs for Spokane Public Schools. “One of the programs that we operate in some of our elementary schools is the First Move Chess Program, which actually happens as part of the school day.”
Dill, Stripes and White all brought up funding problems at the state level.
“It’s easy to figure out how to pay for expensive things like football or the math curriculum,” Stripes said. “It’s tougher to figure out how to pay for things that don’t cost much.”
“Chess is cheap,” he said. “What St. George’s pays me is one-quarter of one student’s tuition.”
At Eagle Peak School, coordinators Tim O’Halloran and Jason Newberry reached out to Dill’s academy for guidance with their nascent chess program. “John was generous,” O’Halloran said. “He came in once a week and gave a lesson.
“We started with just these cardboard fold-up chess boards, and it kind of blew up. We had 25 to 30 kids in a class.
“A lot of our kids never got involved in sports, were never part of a team because they couldn’t afford it. Chess gives them an opportunity to compete.”
Eighth-grade student David Ertter is one of the school’s most dedicated players.
“David studies the opening theories,” Newberry said. “He’s making his own computer program to teach people chess openings.”
David has been in foster care most of his life. “He’s had a really rough go at it,” O’Halloran said. “Chess gives him an identity.”
“It got me smarter, that’s for sure,” David laughed. “It’s not just in the game. Even in real life, chess helps you learn to think things through.”
Rossa Morris and her son, Tiernan, are fixtures at the academy’s bimonthly chess tournaments. “Three years ago, when we found out about the chess offered, we jumped on it,” Rossa said. “My mother got involved, and now she’s coaching.”
“(Tiernan) developed skills so quickly,” she said. “He clearly shows a progression in critical thinking.”
Dill said that chess activates 30 percent more of the brain than any other activity.
Felicia Boyle also coaches for the academy. “Part of the reason that I coach is because I’ve seen what it’s done for my own child,” she said. “His academics, him as a person, his confidence, everything – I’ve seen him blossom.”
The process continues. “Watching chess grow in Spokane is like watching grass grow,” Valeriote said. “But it’s getting there.”
“Spokane is really strong (on) sports,” Dill said. “We’re trying to squeeze a little brainwork in.”
Said Stripes: “Chess is a great game, and a great game for kids. The things we learn (in chess), they are hard to get other places.”
This story has been changed to correct Lisa White’s title to director of Express and After School Programs for Spokane Public Schools.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.