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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

School custodian leads student chess teams to victory

By Sydney Page Washington Post

As a chess coach, David Bishop is often asked the same question by his students: “Mr. Bishop, what’s your favorite chess piece?”

“I get that a lot,” said Bishop, who answers that – yes – the diagonal-moving bishop is a favorite piece, after the Queen.

Bishop has a relationship with the students that is twofold: He is not only the school chess coach, he is also the school custodian. He cleans the classrooms, and also cleans up at chess tournaments, so to speak. His teams have won statewide competitions, and this year, they made it to the national championships.

Bishop, 61, leads the chess club and the competitive chess team at George B. Weatherbee Elementary School in Hampden, Maine, where he has worked full-time as a custodian for the past six years. He also runs the chess program at Reeds Brook Middle School, which is in the same district.

“It just grew naturally,” he said. “I might be trying to make up for what I missed when I was in grade school and high school. I didn’t have a team, and I wasn’t in a club.”

Bishop began playing chess at age 10 and has been hooked ever since.

“I kept going and kept getting better. I never gave up,” he said.

Still, he didn’t expect to one day become a chess coach – or a custodian, for that matter.

In 2013, Bishop retired from his long-standing job at a telecommunications company, where he installed fiber optic systems in homes and businesses for 24 years. It was then a friend of his approached him and asked if he’d be interested in working with him as a custodian at a local middle school.

“I didn’t know what to think about it,” said Bishop, who had no prior experience in the field, but was interested in exploring different work opportunities. “Eventually, I said yes.”

A few weeks into his new job, Bishop discovered that Reeds Brook Middle School had a chess club. He asked the teacher in charge if he could help out, “and do some tactics and strategies for the kids,” he recalled.

That teacher retired in 2015, and Bishop took over the club, alongside another staff member at the school.

Then, in an effort to “make it more fun,” Bishop said, he started a separate, more competitive team so students who were interested in taking the sport more seriously could compete against other schools.

“In a lot of ways,” he explained, “I’m living through them.”

In 2017, Bishop transferred his custodial work to George B. Weatherbee Elementary School, but continued to run the chess club and team at the middle school. He also volunteered to lead a team at the elementary school, as well as a third team at Earl C. McGraw School, a K-2 school in the district.

As he coached the students through the inner workings of the game, Bishop said, “they just kept getting stronger” and began dominating at competitions.

“The 2019-2020 season was a big one,” said Bishop, who eventually stopped managing the team at Earl C. McGraw School, as he was getting too busy with his older students. That season, his elementary students won the state finals.

After a brief hiatus during the pandemic, the middle school and elementary school teams took second place at the state championships in 2022, and “the kids were just really, really happy,” said Bishop, who is compensated with a small stipend for leading the school clubs.

He holds team practices for three hours on Saturdays, and he runs chess club sessions at both schools on Tuesdays. The middle school team has 14 players, while the elementary team has 10. About 25 students attend each club meeting.

Jennifer Cyr, the principal of George B. Weatherbee Elementary School, said Bishop has unwavering dedication to the game and the students.

“I’m so grateful for his work that goes above and beyond,” she said. “He really inspires students to be their best.”

Plus, she noted, regularly playing chess has had additional benefits for players, particularly in their academic studies.

“It’s such a powerful game that really promotes strategy and great executive functioning,” Cyr said. “This is beyond a game; it’s critical thinking skills, which is what we want students to do out in the world. This is excellent practice.”

“I think this is the best sport that kids can play,” said Bishop, who has two daughters, ages 18 and 20. “It’s a workout for the brain.”

To become a member of the school teams there are no requirements beyond having a basic knowledge of the game.

“I don’t refuse anybody,” said Bishop, explaining that “the way to get better is to play hundreds of games.”

“You learn by losing,” he added.

Bishop’s nonlinear path to becoming a chess coach has garnered media attention, and is often compared to “the Queen’s Gambit,” a 2020 TV series, in which a janitor named William Shaibel teaches a young orphan-turned-prodigy how to play chess.

The show has been lauded for helping to fuel a renaissance of the game during the pandemic.

He acknowledged that being a custodian and a chess coach is “kind of unconventional,” Bishop said.

“Usually there’s a teacher that does it, but all it takes is a love of chess,” he continued, adding that Bill Camp, “the Queen’s Gambit” actor who plays the fictional custodian and chess coach, heard about him and reached out with kind words.

Camp told Bishop he’d like to “visit our schools and talk to me and the kids,” Bishop said.

For Bishop, what is far more rewarding than the recognition, he said, is watching his students blossom into excellent players.

“I love our teams, and I love seeing the progress in kids as they get older,” he said. “They also progress in their confidence and self-esteem.”

Some students have gotten so good at the game, he said, that they’re “at the point where I can’t keep catching up with them. They beat me.”

His proudest moment to date was when both teams made it to the 2023 National Championships, hosted by the U.S. Chess Federation. Middle school students competed from April 21 to April 23 in Round Rock, Texas, and elementary students competed in Baltimore from May 12 to May 14.

The middle school students placed eighth out of 52 teams, and the elementary students placed 14th out of 53 teams.

“Little old Hampden, Maine, did really, really well,” said Bishop. “It was a lifetime experience for all the kids in both schools. They’ll never forget it.”

Erika Snyder, a fifth grader at George B. Weatherbee Elementary School, said participating in the national championships was “really cool.”

“I’ve never been in a room with so many chess boards and so many people playing at once,” said Erika, 10, who has been a chess player since second grade, and credits Bishop for improving her game. “He builds our skills and makes us grow.”

Her mother, Shizuka Snyder, praised Bishop for his patience and devotion to the students.

“Mr. Bishop’s commitment is just amazing,” she said. “He’s always there and always available for the kids who want to play and want to learn.”

Victoria Amon, whose two sons – ages 9 and 10 – also played in the national championships, often attends Saturday training sessions, just to see Bishop and the students in action.

“I actually enjoy watching,” she said. “He holds their attention, and that’s a hard thing to do.”

“He always shows up with a great attitude, ready to play and have fun,” Amon added. “It’s a big group of kids, and I wish he had more support.”

Bishop is hoping for additional support, too, and has been asking school administrators for additional funding for the chess programs in the district. Transportation to tournaments is not provided. A local parent started a GoFundMe page to help cover the costs associated with transporting the two teams to the national championships. The fundraiser remains open to raise money for supplies and books, as well as future transportation.

“There should be more parity in the scholastic sport of chess as compared to other sports in Maine and the nation,” Bishop said, adding that he’s hopeful that this is just the beginning of his teams’ success.

“They’re going to hit the ground running next year,” he said.

And he’ll be there with them.

“I’ll be coaching as long as I can,” he said. “I have at least 20 more years left in the tank.”