Faces of US Chess

The mission of US Chess is to empower people, enrich lives, and enhance communities through chess. Faces of US Chess is a collection of stories that highlights the realization of this mission as told through personal narratives. Check back here or follow us on Instagram to find more stories from the US Chess community. Also look for us at a chess event in the future to share your story.


"No, I don’t play chess. I dance. I do hip-hop competitively. We’re here at the U.S. Open because my brother is playing in the Rockefeller for the second time. I love being here with him, just experiencing it with him. You know, saying good luck and watching him come out of the hall — happy or sad, doesn't matter. It just brings me a lot of joy.

I think competition is good. In dance I get to meet a lot of people, and it makes me feel like I have something to look forward to. Dance is a big part of my life — dance camps and going to the studio — they’re like second homes. Dance motivates me to keep going. That’s how I want my little brother to feel about chess. I think he’s starting to get into what the other kids are doing with their games and stuff.  But I’m six-and-a-half years older than him and he’s still a kid — I don’t think he understands the priorities right now. That’s something I’m sure he’ll understand later.

I think loving any sport is a big deal. So what I’d like for him to get from this tournament is lots of growth and reigniting that motivation. I just want him to find something to love like I have. I hope that it’s chess, but if it’s not chess, I will always be supportive."

-Dhruvika Solanki

 "I never intended on making chess a career. I was an attorney by profession and had worked for federal judges right out of law school. But when my son was in kindergarten, he started asking, “Why can’t you read to class like the other moms?” That’s when I realized it might be time for me to retire and do more in the classroom. So I started volunteering a lot at the school and eventually I was asked to help with the chess club in the mornings.

We had about 10 or 12 kids who would come to practice. In the second year, I convinced the gifted teacher to have the club meet after school to get more participation. We had over a hundred kids sign up! Then a smaller group of kids wanted to go to a tournament.

We went to a few tournaments in Alabama and then I took a group of seven kids from our school to SuperNationals in 2013. And oh, my stars. I mean, you see chess on that scale and it is just unparalleled. Everything was online. Everything started on time. That was a big deal for us in Alabama. I came back from that experience realizing we needed to up our game.

SuperNationals inspired me. One idea was to get ChessKid.com memberships for our club so they could train online as well as have over-the-board practice. But mostly, I wanted to develop an organization that had online registration and pairings and standings and everything happening like it had at SuperNationals.

So, that’s where I got the idea to start the Madison City Chess League. Because I wanted all kids in Madison to be able to play, not just the ones at my son’s elementary school. I thought we’d all get stronger that way. I also saw the academic benefits of chess, whether you played competitively or not.

I was on the school board at the time, so I convinced our superintendent and our school board to provide chess education through the ChessKid program for every elementary student. That grew over the years as these elementary students went to middle school. Our school system added a chess elective for middle school students and we used that curriculum.

I didn't realize how pronounced the gender gap in chess was until I brought a team to a state chess event in 2013. This was after SuperNationals. We had eight students on that team, and five were female. The moms of the few girls from other teams started coming up to me, asking, “What are you doing to have so many girls playing chess?” I hadn’t realized I was doing anything special, but when I thought about it, I was helping grow girls in chess in a few ways. For instance, when I hosted tournaments locally, I would ask the kids, “Why do you like playing chess? Why do you like being here?”

Oftentimes, the boys and girls would tell me different things. Many of the boys said, “I like to win, I like the trophies, I like the medals.” But when I asked the girls, they’d usually say the trophies and the medals were great — and a lot of them won them — but the primary reason they were there was to hang out with their friends. So once I understood what motivated the kids, I intentionally held events that incorporated fun for the entire team, like a team dinner or an ice cream night.  

Another fun event we did was a Halloween tournament on the football field. It was during the height of COVID, so we were wearing masks and gloves and played outside. We had a costume contest, a scariest glove contest, the best mask contest, and other activities along with it.

When you’re trying to grow your female population, it’s important to not stack the deck ahead of time. I know what it feels like to be one of the few women in a room or one of the few women who are in some category — whether it was my math major in college or being in law school or organizing and running chess events. So starting as early as kindergarten, we are making sure that the girls aren’t sitting in a room where they’re greatly outnumbered.

About six years ago, I hosted the first All-Girls state chess championship in Alabama. We had probably fewer than 40 girls competing in that tournament. Last year we hit a record 66 girls. We had more girls in Alabama playing in our state championship than in Tennessee or in Florida, where they have a women’s and girls’ championship. And so, I was thrilled at our numbers.

A few years ago, I had started moving the tournament to corporations and companies so that girls could see how they could apply the STEM skills that they learn in chess to the business industry. So last year, we hosted the tournament at Hudson Alpha. The company offered a tour of their campus so the girls could see some of the work that they’re doing. They do a lot of innovative research to help cure cancer and other pretty amazing things related to the biotech industry. Plus they have this wonderful double helix path where they do fundraising events, so the girls simply could walk outside and just see how beautiful it is in Research Park. It was inspiring for the girls to be able to see that they could work in a place that looked like this and do such impactful work for the world. Or they could even participate in student internships that Hudson Alpha offers.

This year, in ‘24, we're going to host the All-Girls at the Alabama School for Cyber Technology and Engineering. The cyber school is a boarding school in Alabama that just opened last year. I’m hoping, because of the cyber school, a lot of girls from across the state will come in. I’d also like to set another all-time record this year. I hope our numbers will hit in the 70s."

-Ranae Bartlett


"I started playing chess when I was about 14. I read about it in my dad's old World Book Encyclopedia. But I didn't have a chess set. So I took a bunch of my Lego pieces and put them together for a board. And I had some droids to use as pawns for the black side and some farmers for pawns on the other side—it was pretty creative, right? That was my first chess set. Later my friend got one from the dollar store and got a glass chess set for me. It was nice. I used that to get started and got my first couple of books. Then I found out about Bill Adams — he lives in Florida now — who had a chess club at a few libraries where you could just come play. Bill gave me an official chess set with all the correct sizes and everything, so no more Legos! And the set he gave me is the one I still use today."

-Andrew Schremser


White to move, Euwe – Smyslov, Zurich, 1953 (photo courtesy Chess Review)


"My mom died suddenly in 1969 when I was nine. Shortly before that, she got a chess set with either S&H green stamps or with Raleigh cigarette coupons — I can’t remember which. Anyway, she got us this chess set and my brother and I played. That was just a little before Bobby Fischer and the 1972 chess boom. So when I got to junior high — also in 1972 — I knew a bit about chess. We had a chess club ‘cause of the Fischer boom, so I was all ready to go. I started playing in tournaments in 1973 and have done so every since.

I love that chess offers the possibility of creating art. If your opponent can meet you halfway, you can create something beautiful over the chess board. Beautiful tactics. Beautiful. And not just a two-move tactic or something. You can create some really gorgeous stuff.

That beauty is what’s particularly appealing to me. I love seeing the really great players play something that’s just gorgeous. Sometimes it’s hidden, but I play well enough to appreciate what world champions and really strong grandmasters can create. And you know, every once in a while, I can do it, too.

My favorite player is the world champion Vasily Smyslov. He was probably the best player in the ‘50s. There’s a game he played in Zurich ‘53, where he was paired with another former world champion, Max Euwe from Holland. It was a Grunfeld. Euwe played very, very well — I loved his idea — and Smyslov kind of got in trouble. So Smyslov’s in trouble, but then he put up a great defense. Euwe didn't see the most concise way of playing it and Smyslov turned that on him.

I’ve used that game a lot of times when I’ve done lectures at schools and prisons and such. So that's probably my very favorite.



I volunteered at prisons four or five times a year for around 28 years. I did simuls and gave lectures from time to time. Prison chess is very tactical, as you can imagine. And the hype talk, the banter — there's a lot of that. I would walk in the room, and they’d immediately start: “I'm going to beat you” and such. About the fourth time that they’d play me they’d know the talking wasn’t going to work. They weren’t going to beat me. So, I would tell them to try to figure out what I was I doing because I was always winning. I’d say, “You know what you want to do, but you need to figure out what I'm doing.” And they would. It was always interesting to see that transition, when they started coming with the idea of learning something.

I was there for the game, helping others appreciate the game. And I know they were looking forward to playing chess with me. That chess club was a highlight for a lot of us. There was also this fellow, James Ziegler, who worked there. Running the chess club was his favorite part of his job. He could play chess and he got to be around 1400. But he never wanted to win a chess game against any of the guys — he wanted to draw. So even when he was winning, he would offer a draw. In James’ mind, he was trying to teach these guys that you don’t always have to win. You don’t have to beat and conquer the guy across the board from you. You can enjoy a game, have a nice, maybe even cerebral, conversation. And then just shake hands and play again tomorrow.

Chess helps a person have true self-esteem — you’re going to get out of it what you put into it. And you learn there’s consequences for everything you do — there’s consequences all over the board. But hopefully you learn that you don't have to beat that guy across from you, like James Ziegler taught. I mean, you’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some. But really you are here for the game. To share a common interest and a camaraderie."

-Eric Fischvogt

“For a long time it was just me and Armen at the club. He ran it, sometimes out of his rock climbing gym. Then the meetings became really infrequent and sometimes he wouldn't host the club at all. And then, less than a year ago, he was like, “I'm kind of done. Do you want take it over?”

I was, like, ”Come on, we’re Fairbanks. We're not a small city, relatively speaking, for Alaska.” So I took over the club because I wanted Fairbanks to have one. And I wanted to play chess, and I wanted people to play chess with me. My goal was, “If I can get five people to come regularly, I will be the happiest person in the world.” For the first couple of times, no one came. But eventually, we got more. It's now at least 10, which is double what I wanted.

One key was that we decided to have the club at the library. I’m really grateful to the library. They let me use the study rooms for free and as the club got bigger, they let us use a bigger room. Then they approached me about partnering with them, which has been so amazing. At one point they used some donated funds to help buy boards and clocks for the club. They advertise the club at the library and on their website, and they continue to let us use their space for our meetings.

And now we meet every week consistently. Well, we're off for major holidays. And when I can't go, my sister or my mom goes. We make sure someone’s always there.

We just don't have tournaments regularly in Alaska, rated or unrated. So I decided to host a tournament, an unrated tournament, the first in nearly 20 years in Fairbanks. I was hoping that a few people would come. I didn't think we would get 35! It was insane. People from Anchorage came, people from Denali came. People were emailing me saying they couldn't get in because the registration was closed — we had run out of spots. And I was like, ”Oh my gosh, I wish I had more boards.”

I think part of the success is a result of me really advertising the tournament. I announced it on Chess.com and Instagram and Facebook. But about 90% of the people who came to me did not see it on any social media. Instead, they found out about it from posters I’d put up all over town. I put posters everywhere — the library, the grocery, the bowling alley, the swimming pool. I would ask, “Oh, did you see Facebook?” They’d respond “No. Fred Meyers.” It was like, old school.

I also went around to all these places asking for donations for prizes. 95% of the time it was no, but sometimes it was a yes. I got GameStop and some local shops to give me some stuff so we were able to have prizes. During the tournament, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner stopped by. We were on the front page. Two Alaska State Senators sent me letters. That was so cool.

I’m really hoping I’ll get to run at least one rated tournament. It doesn't have to have a lot of people. I just want to give people the opportunity. A lot of the people who come into the club are like, “Hey, when are you going to do a [rated] tournament?” And I'm, like, “Can you give me a second? I'm only 16!”

-Evelyn Mills

Since this interview, Evelyn has began organizing a tournament in Fairbanks for National Chess Day in October. Follow Evelyn’s event, and many other events, as we share more #NationalChessDay coverage. More information on hosting and promoting events for National Chess Day is available here.


“My chess journey wasn’t like in the movies. I started playing with my dad maybe two-and-a-half, three years ago. And I kind of liked it. We would play some training games and I was never able to beat him. But then one day, he fell into a fork. I played my first tournament soon after that and it constantly got better. So I played in more tournaments.

Now I’m playing in the Ruth Haring Invitational. So far, it’s been really good. We get to play against girls who are the cream of the cream, right? So it’s been really, really fun and interactive. Playing on the DGT boards has also given me a chance to play my best chess and get it shown to everyone. It’s been encouraging and fun. I've been loving it so far.

I like everything about chess. It’s a mind game where you can outsmart anybody. You could even outsmart Mangus Carlsen! It often depends on who’s having a good or a bad day. And you don't have to go anywhere special to play. In other sports, athletic sports, like running or football or basketball, you have to go outside and if it’s raining you can’t play. But chess — you can play it anytime, anywhere, at any age. It can be enjoyed by anyone.

I’m currently the Georgia women’s champion. My goal is to become a WGM. And my highest goal is to become the women’s world champion. But just qualifying for these events is really good.”

-Jwalanthi Ram

Jwalanthi is currently the Georgia women’s champion and went on to place second in the WIM Ruth Haring National Tournament of Girls State Champions. Congrats to all of our winners. Check out coverage of the Invitationals from days one through four of our U.S. Open reports here.


"The U.S. Open is a huge traditional event. It's one of US Chess’ longest-running tournaments: it's a national championship, and it's a qualifier for the U.S. championship, so we get players who want that prestigious spot. But more than that, the U.S. Open is like an annual pilgrimage for a lot of people. So many are involved with US Chess: on the political side, on the volunteer side. There are those who have been involved in chess for years. They all want to help chess get better and US Chess is the mechanism we have to do that.

Every year we see old faces, new faces. Once people have experienced the U.S. Open, they usually want to come back as often as they can. The invitationals are also important because they bring together the best of the best from each of the states. Some states don't have huge chess programs, so the invitationals offer a unique opportunity for states to select a state champion to represent them at a national event. These players get recognition here that they may not otherwise get — they are recognized as the best that the state has to offer. It really is great to have it all together."

-Chris Bird, chief tournament director for the National Invitational Championships.


"I like that chess is skill-based; it isn’t variable or left up to chance. I like practicing on my own and knowing that if I practice enough, I can win. And if I don't practice, I won't win. I can measure how good I am, and I can be as good as I want to be. And I like that. I like knowing that getting there is possible.

I started playing chess when I was eight. I learned online from an app. Then I began going to the local club. At the time, it was just me and a guy named Armen. I also joined an elementary school chess club and I was the only girl. I did chess in middle school, too, but again, I was the only girl. None of my coaches were girls. No one I played was a girl. And some people actually refused to play me because I was the only girl. Looking back, I think I know why — they were afraid I would win. But back then it felt different.

The only girl I ever played in a tournament was at the Alaska state tournament three years ago. It was great. When we saw each other, we were so excited. So when I got to high school I decided to create a chess club for women. I still run that one. And now, at the Fairbanks Chess Club, when a girl walks in, I’ll go up and shake her hand and welcome her to the club. Sometimes I'll play her. Basically, I try to make her as comfortable as possible. I know first-hand that women can be sometimes uncomfortable in a male-dominated room. I want their experience to be different from mine."

-Evelyn Mills

Ernest Levert
Image Caption
Ernest Levert

"I started the Royal Oak Initiative (in Columbus, Ohio) in 2014 to focus on certain demographics that don’t always find safety in traditional chess spaces. We concentrate specifically on black and brown communities, making welcoming spaces for women, and using chess as a mentoring tool for reaching young people. We go into schools, libraries, and recreation centers and provide chess programming. We work specifically in Franklin County and central Ohio to make sure that every community member learns how to play chess. I tell people, “You don’t have to be good at it, but you should know how to play.”

In 2019, we started doing meetups at the Upper Cup coffee shop. Probably the coolest place to play chess in Columbus. Then the space across the street became available. So we turned that into what we call the Cooperative Chess Cultural Center, a/k/a the 4C — we call it “The Fork.” We have meetups there twice a month, and it’s like a family reunion. We welcome all skill levels and backgrounds. And we do different cultural events, like chess and art, chess and poetry, chess and yoga ­— all sorts of ways to get people connected to this idea of holistic wellness and living.

It's friendly and fun, but it's really about connections. It’s about culture, it’s about community. But also, we’re creating a pipeline. We’re creating a shift around what it means to really be able to compete. A lot of us play casually, but we don’t always have the resources, the instruction, the guidance to take our game to the next level. Because when you look at the highest level of chess, there’s a drastic underrepresentation of people of African descent.

We really want to build up the culture. But we have to start with the cultural seeds and plant them. A lot of people are like, “Oh, I'm not smart enough. I'm not patient enough. I'm not…enough to play chess.”  And we always remind people, “You are enough to do anything you want in your life.”

-Ernest Levert

Sean Kennedy
Image Caption
Sean Kennedy

"Chess has been part of what I do as a teacher — it’s an extension of my job that I really enjoy. I’m in my 28th year as a teacher, and I’ve been playing chess for about 30 years, so it’s helped me keep teaching from becoming routine. And I also believe in competition, so I like getting the kids to tournaments no matter what the results. I think the right amount of competition is good. It’s a valuable part of high school. When Henry and Zachary were my students and were in the BKCL — the Baltimore Kids Chess League — we ran some local competitions and that was nice. But since Miss Christina Heffner has taken over, the amount of funding she’s been able to get allows us to do more things, and I’d really like to see that continue. And I’d like to expand into more high schools, develop teams, so we can hold more local tournaments and inner city high school competitions. At first, we were just growing a community. But now we’ve had some successes and that’s been good. We’ve had new experiences, too. Like last year — the team traveled to Tennessee, and for a number of the players that was their first flight, their first time off the East Coast, their first time out of state. We went to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. We dipped our toes in the Mississippi River." -  Sean Kennedy


"Zachary: Mr. Kennedy got me started in chess. Honestly, just him. He was my American history teacher. I loved him as a teacher, and he was fun to hang around. So all my friends and I would go to his classroom during lunch and play a bunch of chess and it was fun. It was more of a social club back then. We just went to hang out with friends.

Henry: … for, like, all four years of high school.

Henry: We’ve all graduated (Zachary in 2019 and Henry in 2020), but most of our team keeps in touch.

Zachary: Yeah, we still talk a few times a week. We have a chess group chat where we send our games from Chess.com and we make jokes and such.

Henry: And when we heard that this tournament was happening, we figured since we live nearby, we could come down.

Zachary: We were both off school and work…

Henry: …so we’re here going over games with some of the current players but also just hanging out, catching up.

Zachary: I enjoy seeing where the chess club is today. When I was in high school, we didn’t have opportunities to go to tournaments like this or travel to Tennessee for SuperNationals or anything like that. That was that was unheard of.

Henry: I agree completely. To come in here and see how passionate everybody is…it’s pretty awesome. To see that people like Mr. Kennedy are still doing a good job and to see everybody coming out to play in these tournaments… yeah, it’s great. But even though we didn’t travel like this, chess did give me a community in high school, which is so important.

Zachary: Yeah, 100%. And I can see that in these kids right now. They’re very close. Exactly how we were in high school. We were extremely close. Now I am working as a firefighter, so chess doesn’t really play a role in my day-to-day life anymore. I don’t really talk about it too much at work. But chess played a big role in my life during high school. And I can see that this club has definitely brought people together. That’s really cool." - Zachary Goldberg and Henry Ryle



"In 2008 we were going to [the All Girls] nationals in Dallas. Our flight was set. But when we showed up at the airport, the airline had gone out of business. So we had no way to get there. Somehow our plight got on the news, and other airlines began jumping in to help our kids. And we were able to make it! We got there very, very late, but we made it. And the kids did well. So in the face of adversity, they learned a great lesson.

Another year we had a group of five girls that went to All-Girls. We had a regimen of studying the games after each round, doing this meditation-type practice, then resting before going back in. We kept the girls totally focused on the game. And so, at the award ceremony, when it was announced that they had won, they were completely surprised. It was one of the purest moments of our program.

We tend to lose students right about late middle school, early high school. That’s partly because parents are starting to look at college options. So they're looking at sports. Sports trumps chess, because there aren’t a lot of scholarships for chess. But considering the impact that chess has on the way you think, memorize, all of that — that helps in college, and it’s just crazy to lose them right at that time.

This is my 20th year with the Detroit City Chess Club (DCCC). Oh wow. Decades, right? I get to say for decades. When my kids started [at DCCC], it was very small, just a couple of kids from a few schools, maybe like two or three schools. And then the club grew, and I really fell in love with it. Our coach and founder, Kevin Fite, is the most consistent and passionate person I've ever met. So it's a pleasure just working with the program.

I always say I'm the VP for the club, but VP stands for Volunteer Parent. We take pride in working in the Detroit metro area, in underprivileged areas that need critical thinkers. Schools focus on academics. And then there are extracurriculars like music and arts and sports. But not everyone's athletic. Everyone's not artistic or musical. But everyone can think. So we take pride in teaching our champions how to think — and that translates to other elements within life." - Catherine Martinez



"I have been playing chess for about a year now [but I’ve played in over a hundred tournaments]. I started off with my middle school chess team in Louisville, then I kind of played the game on and off for about three months. I played my first tournament in December of 2021, somewhere around there. It was a scholastic event. My team got second place but I think I got, I dunno, maybe two points. I lost half of my games. But still, I liked it so much that I continued to play.

Chess was still something very new for me. I had never been to a chess tournament before, and I'd never been to a tournament in general. But I started going to tournaments basically every week. I would go to any tournament that was available, like on Thursday nights, Friday nights, even Monday nights.

I don't really have any tournament superstitions, but I sometimes worry, “What if I'd played bad and I just wasted all this money for no reason?” I still go though, to chess tournaments, because I just like how you have to always be on your toes thinking. You always have to consider what your opponent's about to do. So, I go to the tournaments, and I meet new people through chess. That also keeps me interested. I never have trouble finding chess games and that’s pretty cool."

-Jengsse Perez



"When I was a child, it was not common for girls to play chess competitively, so my brother was the one who competed in chess. My dad, who’s a chess master, taught me the basics, but otherwise I sorta learned on my own. So, there was never a question in my mind about teaching my kids to play chess. I believe in chess. So, I introduced my sons to chess when they were about seven months old, using the pieces as toys.

Now I am on the board of directors for the Baltimore Kids Chess League and my son is playing chess here at the National High School Championship with his school, Hampstead Hill Academy. He has also played tournaments in Florida, in Columbus, at Gaylord and now here in Washington D.C. And when he makes friends in Florida, he sees them online, again in Columbus, and so on — there’s this connection across state lines. The connection does not end with the tournament. It spans schools and states and time until he sees them again at the next tournament. He really enjoys that.

Chess gives kids an amazing social environment, but the benefits of chess are multifaceted. It contributes to their logical thinking because they need to think several steps ahead. And it teaches them to slow down and really consider their next move, several times before deciding. It improves critical thinking and decision-making. And that translates into their career — when they get a job or when they need to change jobs or even reconsider their career. It teaches kids it’s not just about today, but about tomorrow and after tomorrow.

I hope to help the league grow so chess is available to more kids in the area and beyond, including girls. I'd definitely like to see more women in chess as we break the glass ceiling. Just looking around here [the tournament hall], I see a lot of boys and not as many girls. We don't have enough girls in the community. And if I had a girl, I would teach her chess and I would support her fully. I believe in chess for all."

-Anya Cappolla

Alan Cowan


"In some ways, I owe all of this to a middle school teacher who was an avid chess player. He taught me, he saw something in me. Now chess is a staple in my life.

I went to a predominantly Black high school and middle school. When we went to [chess] tournaments around Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, etc., I noticed that we were often the only Black school. After I began playing in collegiate tournaments, I again noticed there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me, that very few Black universities were in attendance.

So we [Alan and co-founder Shaniah Francis] launched [The Black Odyssey, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit] in September 2022 after recognizing that HBCU chess programs historically are severely underfunded or nonexistent. What Black Odyssey (TBO) does is provide resources, like access to master-level instructors. We also want to serve as a bridge between HBCUs.

In December we decided to organize the HBCU Chess Classic to promote TBO’s mission, which is to push Black students to be better critical thinkers through chess. Shaniah — who’s incredible at outreach — was the one who reached out to Maurice [GM Maurice Ashley]. He responded, “Heck yeah, let's get this going!” He’s been instrumental in this whole process.

At our core, TBO is about teaching skills on and off the board. The classic is just a catalyst to let HBCUs know that we're here. We also serve as that bridge — we've gotten nine HBCUs from all over the country to come together to play chess.

We have a beautiful roadmap to guide us. We've laid out the structure, so the individuals who take on TBO will be able to maintain the Atlanta University Center chapters. And we’ll be taking on larger roles after we graduate to ensure that TBO is on other HBCU campuses as well.

All we can do is just push and push and push and make sure that the HBCUs have the options and the resources, so they can be a part of these spaces. It’s a beautiful thing when you have a concept in your mind that works within the framework of your life."

- Alan Cowan


"Earlier today I was playing a simul with GM [Rashad] Babev. There were a lot of people higher rated than me. I may be wrong, but I think I was the only person who drew him. I think everybody else lost. I was up a pawn in the end. But, you know, he is a lot better than me. I said, “I don't want to risk losing that.” So when he offered the draw I agreed. Oh, I was very happy.

I think I would like to be a professional chess player, though I recognize that it is unlikely. I have a lot of work to get there, but I'm trying. Yeah, I'm trying. We're from Chicago, which has a strong chess community. There’s a team at my school, Lincoln Elementary, and I'm on that. There's also a lot of different chess-related things such as meet-ups where you get to interact and meet some other fellow chess tournament players. It's just for fun, you know, playing chess, but I get to meet so many great friends.

It was definitely my dad who got me into chess. He just thought that I was so good at other types of — well, decent at — other types of games. Like I was beating him at tic tac toe and stuff like that. And he was like, “Oh, you should try playing chess. It could be fun for you.” He was right.

One of the most challenging times that comes to mind was when I was in Columbus playing nationals. Before my fourth game. I had won the first three and I was super excited but I lost that game. And I was just thinking like, “What if this keeps happening?” and then I kind of got discouraged. I wanted to quit at that point, but I'm happy I pulled myself out. Well, my family helped – my dad and sister called and encouraged me. And I got ice cream with my mom. They, my family, made me so happy. My family is the best." - Aidan Baker


"Chess has given me a really cool culture that I’m proud to be a part of. It’s been a place I can write, a place I can play chess, a place I can connect to other people. There are so many parts of the chess world that are cool — some of them aren't even about chess.

I go to St. Luke’s School in Connecticut where I captain the chess club. We have tournaments, play events, and have a league. I like the camaraderie. It’s this lively atmosphere, and it’s always great to travel to tournaments, go to blitz tournaments in the middle of the night, and go to big events like this [the 2023 National High School Championship]. I mean, getting to play at nationals — just getting to play — and helping out with Girls Club has been cool. I’ve also been able to write about chess. I wrote an article on the Invitationals for Chess Life Kids. And now I’m singing at tournaments. It’s a collision of all my interests!

Last year I was in L.A. doing a songwriting class. And then [US Chess] sent an email [looking for someone to sing the National Anthem at the U.S. Open]. I was planning to be there playing, so it fit kinda perfectly. When the email came my mom was like, “Do you think you could just throw your rendition into my phone?” And I did and they took me! It was very, very, very exciting.

They asked me to sing again for this tournament. We were already in the car driving and they're calling. The singer got sick, so they’re asking if I want to do it. Yes! But there was no time — I didn't have the right clothes. So my mom goes to the outlet mall next door and is banging on doors saying, “You open? You open?” I grabbed something and ran up there and…yeah, and it was pretty much last minute.

I’m also proud of the service organization I founded, Chess in 1 Day. We go to libraries and teach kids how to play chess in one day. Our instructors — we have different people each time – are all teenagers. We teach kids and families. We teach families because families teach the kids, and that’s important, too." -Laurel Aronian


I’m one of those guys who fell in love during “The Queen’s Gambit.” I was texting a young lady I was interested in and I was asking what she was doing. She’s watching “The Queen’s Gambit.” I had no idea what it was. I googled it. I saw it was about chess, so I ordered a chessboard ‘cause I wanted to ask her on a date.

I don’t talk to the young lady anymore. But I absolutely fell in love with the game of chess. So she wasn’t the one, but the chess was. One hundred percent.

I learned the moves and everything like that in the seventh grade. But I didn’t play. I’m a lifetime video gamer. I went to Georgia Tech for computer programming. I love figuring things out. But my second stint, as an adult getting into chess — it hit my brain completely differently. I was playing all the time. I brought a board to work, I was playing on my phone. My good friend is the owner of the Anguished Barber [in Atlanta]. And I’m playing on my phone while he cuts my hair. He was, like, “Move your knight, move your bishop.” I’m, like, “Please don’t mess up my haircut.” And that’s when I found out he loved chess. I said, “We should do a chess night here. It’s on brand.” They have a really cool craft cocktail bar connected to the barbershop. And so that’s how it started. That’s when I started our first chess club. It was January 12th, 2021.

The very first chess meetup I had was five of us all together, and it slowly turned into what I call Checkmate Mondays. There hasn’t been an over-the-board chess scene in Atlanta where it’s cool to hang out or things like that. And it’s my proudest accomplishment, the community that we’ve built by making chess cool. I’ve had grandmasters, international masters pull up. I’ve had people who are just learning for the first time. Sometimes I just want to go hang out and be around a bunch of people who have some common sense. I say I haven’t met a chess player I don’t like. Everybody’s got their head on their shoulders — at least a little bit.

After a while I started organizing tournaments on Monday and Tuesday nights. They were mostly free to enter — the winner would get bragging rights and a bar tab. And then I started doing quarterly cash tournaments, double elimination, bringing people together, and they’ve drawn a crowd. The news came out one time and covered it. Now I have a new venue for Checkmate Mondays. We’ll be moving to Holiday Bar in West Midtown, which has this awesome outdoor space as well. I want to get the outdoor scene going.

I’ve got the opportunity to teach high school kids now. I love teaching the game and seeing what it does for mental health. I’m also really thankful a lot of the guys in the chess community trust me and respect me. Somebody in the community referred me to the people who were organizing this [HBCU Chess Classic]. I had no idea of the scale this was going to be. I didn’t know Maurice Ashley was involved. At first I was just, like, “If it’s chess, I’m down.” And once I started getting more details, I was nervous. I was nervous this morning [as chief tournament director].

My favorite thing about chess is that there’s nowhere else where you can see so many people from so many different walks of life all getting together. It doesn’t matter when they come to Checkmate Mondays — all that stuff goes to the side. This group of people, this community — you’re not going to see ‘em at a tea party or whatever. But when I talk about how proud I am of the community, that’s because I’m proud of the diversity.

If you’d asked me a couple years ago if I was I going to be a chess guy, I would’ve — well, I was still playing checkers. But now I’ve got a rook tattoo on my face. Oh yeah. I’m a lifer. I love the community.

I’ve always been a social person. I’ve been a bartender for about the last 10 years. After learning more about myself and talking to a therapist, I realized that I’m a giver. I get filled up by creating a space. I understand how much it means to people. It’s something that I love.

Sometimes I think, “I’ll just put the board out.” I’ll just go — I’ll go to the park, I’ll go to our Beltline. It’s a very popular walkable area and it’s amazing how many people just gravitate toward [the chessboard]. There are so many people that want over-the-board chess, but they just don’t know where to go or realize that there’s a community out there. But I’m a proud nerd. I love gaming, I love eSports. And I think with the rise of all that along with chess, now’s a better time than ever.

I’ve also started doing more rated tournaments and I’ve been working with my coach. He’s a local. NM Deepak Aaron. Yeah, that’s my guy. He’s really taken me under his wing. We had our fifth lesson yesterday and he wants to make me a national master and I just know I can do it. I’m hungry. Oh, I know I can do it. I know. I’m not very close. I’m still in my provisional games. But that’s my goal. People know me as the nice guy who brings people together and loves chess. Now I want to be the nice guy that you don’t want to sit across the board from.

-Seth Dousman



Last year we didn't have a chess coach. I really love math, but we didn't have a math club. So I said, “Okay, I want to be the chess sponsor.” We barely survived our first year. We had five to 10 players, but they were really good players and really good kids and really good students. So this year I said, “Let’s get more students who are interested in chess.” There was a club fair and we promoted chess there and had an amazing response. We got a lot of signatures and we ended up with 60 members. After this I wanted to do something else, something special for them because they deserved it. And I Googled — believe it or not — where to take high schoolers to play more challenging chess. There was one tournament in Seattle in January but that was too early and then I saw this one was in April. I said to them, “I want to take you to Washington.” And they were stunned, saying, “What, miss? What did you say?”

“Washington, D.C.”


“Don't worry. Just play.” And now we are here.

We have received such amazing support. We use lichess.com that the Miami [Florida school] district sponsors along with our transportation costs. The rest was covered by my school, iMater Preparatory Academy High School. We have an amazing principal and they're very understanding so the kids and families don’t have to pay a cent. Otherwise, we would not have been able to make it and the kids would not have gotten to come here — they can’t believe that they are here [at the National High School tournament].

On Thursday there were a couple of side events here at the tournament — blitz and such, but I said, “No, no, we will not participate. We need to see Washington.” I told them for today there wouldn’t be any chess. It’s only cherry blossoms, the Capitol, Supreme Court, library, botanical garden, the White House, and the Lincoln monument. We saw a lot. I asked them, “What did you like the most?” Cherry blossoms. Can you imagine? The White House was right there, but I was taking them to the cherries and they were like, “Wait, miss, where are you going? The White House is there.” I put them under the cherry trees and it was amazing. If you know Hialeah [Florida] — it’s a really tough neighborhood. And you would never think of these kids under the cherry trees, but that’s what we did and that’s what they liked the most. I want to cry when I think about them under the cherry blossoms, but I can’t, because I want them to understand this is normal. They deserve these experiences, just like everyone else. And I'm so sorry that I cannot bring more kids, but you know, we are a Title I school and we don't have the money. So now I need to figure out how to fundraise.

These kids need to be here so they can see all of this. They need to go out and play other people so they will see other openings, other moves, and also other perspectives, things they don’t get exposed to otherwise. It's life changing. Some of them have never been outside of Florida. Some of them just arrived from Cuba. So they need to have the opportunity to see this. And I tell them, “Look. Don't just play chess. Look around, look. Enjoy the game but also the moment — enjoy everything. Don't be closed off. Open yourself to different cultures, different people, different approaches.” Because teaching them chess — that's the easy part. But [teaching them] everything else — about life, about time management, how dedicated they need to be — [then] in future, when they get a job or go to college, they will know what to do. They'll be ready for life. Chess is a life changer.

-Kristina Zogovic


“She hasn’t played a full game before. I’m honestly surprised at how well she did. I didn’t know she knew how the pieces move. She plays on the app at home, but she hasn’t actually played a game with anyone before today.”

Shrika has just finished a full blitz game against GM Rashad Babaev at the All-Comers Blitz at the National High School championship. Her father is shocked. She’s five and her brother Tanish is eight. The family traveled to D.C. from North Carolina so Tanish could compete in the Under 800 section. Shrika was supposed to simply tag along.

“Who taught you to play chess?” I ask Tanish.

“My dad taught me. I saw this red box that said ‘Chess.’ Then my dad said, ‘This is chess.’ I was interested so that’s when my dad taught me.” Dad watches proudly, nodding his head.

“Is your dad good at chess?”

Shrika, without missing a beat: “My brother beats him.”

Tanish: “Well, when I started, he usually won. But now you know, I'm smarter than him, so I usually win now.” Dad laughs, but the nodding stops.

“Can you tell me why you like chess?”

Tanish: “Because it’s a brain game. It’s also fun to play, like, moving pieces and thinking, so I like that. Because I like to think. I like to think a lot. And I don't want any physical games. I want to use my brain. So I get smarter.”

“Which color do you like to play?” I ask Shrika.

“Pink and purple!”

“How about when you play chess?”


“What’s your favorite piece?”

“The queen! She can go wherever she wants. She can take the bishop.”

I ask Tanish about his other chess experiences.

“I play at school and at a club. I go to Triangle Chess. That's a class. And I play with others. I play at home with my dad. He’s easy to play so I play with him a lot.” Then Tanish’s eyes light up. “And also, I play this new game called bughouse!”

“What are your future plans for chess?”

Tanish: “I want to do chess and be a grandmaster and play chess with other people.”

Shrika: “I want to be the best in the world.”

“I believe it! Who's your favorite grandmaster?”

Tanish, after a pause: “Magnus Carlsen." 

Robert McKenzie

"My brother, who is like a superhero, was in the NFL. He would beat me at everything. He beat me at basketball, yes, even basketball. The guy could jump, dunk the ball backwards standing straight, run a four or five 40 [yard dash]. At the time he was probably 260 pounds, bench pressing 500 pounds. He was an incredible athlete, and he tells me that he's playing chess with the football players on the Cleveland Browns. He's really gung-ho about this: “You got to play this game, man. This game is awesome. It’s just like football, you know, the quarterback is [the] king.” I’m in college at the time, doing [an] education major. And I said, “Okay, I'll try it, I’ll give this game a try.” I taught myself how to play on this old Packard Bell computer that had maybe 256 megabytes of memory total, but could somehow play chess. I learned how to play the Ruy Lopez on it. To this day, it might be the only opening I know well, the Ruy Lopez from a 1994 Circuit City computer. That's how I got into chess. And I just fell in love with it after that. So, my brother and I started playing back and forth. I remember thinking, “I know I can beat this guy. I gotta beat him at something.” I got a book, Samurai Chess by Michael Gelb, which was about chess and martial arts with some strategic games. I read that book and I beat my brother nine games straight, but he somehow won the 10th game. I think it was 1996, because we had been playing for a couple of years. He never played me after that, ever again, to this day.

I think I'm around 1700 now, but my claim to fame is when I won a big tournament we have in my hometown called the Turkey Bowl. Once I won that, I was, like, “I’m the man!” It was so hard to win it — it was, like, my fourth try. I won a trophy and around $500. Everybody in the club was beating me bad before that. But then I got so much better from doing my puzzles and reading and stuff like that. And I won, finally. It was the under 1600 section, but to me it was like the championship of the world. My family bought me a cake and we celebrated. I took two days off work. I cried. I look back on it and it was so stupid and so dumb. But it’s also when I finally felt I was good enough.

After college I started teaching and the kids are coming into my classroom because they want candy. But one day I don't have any candy, so I say, “You know what, I'll teach you guys chess instead.” They begin learning chess and, you know what, these kids start doing better, having a better attitude. I started seeing the power of the game, how it could help these kids. And so I researched the game. At that time, I had [been using] my one little board until I wrote US Chess and they sent me five chessboards back in 1997 or 1998. Those are the five chessboards that I used for many, many years to teach our kids and take them to the local tournaments to play.

 Around that time, I was looking for this man that I heard taught chess to kids in the library. I thought, “This guy, this old dude in El Camino, when I find this guy, he’s going to teach me all the secrets of chess. I’m going to learn everything from this guy.” I finally catch up to him after many weeks of trying. We play about 14 moves and it’s checkmate. But he's not checkmating me; I'm checkmating him. So, we play again, you know, same thing. This time I checkmate him even faster. Then the third game, same thing. I thought, “This guy can't play. This guy’s no good. Terrible.” But today when I think about this guy, tears come to my eyes. I realized what is interesting and profound about this story is that this guy had these little Black kids around him and he was teaching them how to play chess. He was really teaching them. He was out there doing it. But I was not at the time. I was too afraid that I wasn’t good enough to teach. But this guy showed me all you had to do was to believe and have some passion. I had a Last Dragon kind of moment — that’s my favorite movie — where I said, “I'm going to be my own master. I came here looking for someone to change the world, but I have to go out there and make things happen. I’m going to start my chess club, and I'm going to teach kids, and I'm going to do the best I can.”

And before you know it, I'm teaching chess. I'm teaching the whole school. I'm teaching chess to anyone that I can. I'm like the Johnny Appleseed of chess, trying to spread chess to everyone. At this time, I was teaching at a D elementary school — in Florida they rate their schools — maybe in 2012 or 2013. I'm teaching some little boys. These kids are really rambunctious, heavily challenged behaviorally. I'm trying to calm them down, give them something to be inspired by. One day, I’m teaching this little kid chess and the principal comes in, but she’s not supportive at all. I explain that he is very interested in learning chess and I’m organizing a club. I couldn’t convince her, she told me we didn’t have time for chess, but I just kept doing it anyway.

Now the interesting part is that the very next year I took a team of girls to the All-Girls chess tournament. It was insane. I didn’t have any money, nothing. I just thought, “Somehow we're going to find the money and we're going to go to this Chicago tournament.” These girls from the school were strong chess players, but I wasn’t prepared for what we would accomplish together. We figure it out, get everything arranged, we go there — and we get second in the country. It was a big deal, especially coming out of this Title I school. Our test scores were terrible, but this was something promising. The superintendent called my principal and asked for my number and — and that was so great. Then the city, my city, gave me a proclamation because of that tournament. And I got voted teacher of the year. But the most rewarding part was being able to prove [my principal] wrong.

Shortly after that, I found myself talking to John Galvin from I.S. 318 and I went to the screening of his movie, Brooklyn Castle. One of the producers of the movie was there, along with the mayor of that particular city — not my city — and they had heard my story. We were all talking when the producer asked me to be a part of his chess program. So that's how I ended up working with the National Scholastic Chess Foundation and Sunil Weeramantry.

I think chess is a great solution for a lot of the struggles we have with kids, in the inner city especially. Thinking — thinking their way out of situations, you know what I mean? Because with chess you must make good decisions. If you make a bad decision, that's on you. If you had made a better decision, your situation would have turned out differently. And you can tell a kid that, but he's not always going to get it. However, he's going to understand if he's playing chess and he figures it out on his own. That heuristic experience of chess is what is so powerful. These kids can sit there, and they can play chess, and you can see them transforming. I had this kid who is the perfect example. I had a little reward program for the kids at my club. Every time they leveled up on the chess application we used, I would give them a dollar snack from the school store: a honey bun, bag of chips, stuff like that. I was using it to encourage them. When I first started teaching this kid how to play, he would struggle a lot. He’d curse, mistreat the other kids, and just generally misbehave, but I kept encouraging him to play. This kid got to level five and came for a snack. Then, level six, he came for his snack. Level seven, came for his snack. All of a sudden he goes up two levels on his own and gets to level nine. I find him in the classroom and say, “Hey man, wow, I see you went up two levels.” I'm excited for him. I'm happy for him. I ask him what reward he wants. He responds, “I don't want anything, I just want to be great at chess.” I’m blown away. “Damn, that's deep.” But that’s what chess does for these kids. That boy’s statement was one of the most profound things I’ve heard. That's what I'm after. That's what I'm trying to get them to understand — when you’re working toward something great, it can be transformative and then you can transfer that greatness into something else. And that is my goal. To somehow connect kids to that and help them be great at something, anything. That’s what I’ve got, that’s what I’m giving. If I were an artist, maybe I’d be teaching kids to draw, but this is my artistry. This, teaching chess.

Chess brings me so much joy. The environment, the whole thing. Where I came from and not believing I was good enough, to being here — being around some of these guys, you know what I mean? I didn’t meet my first grandmaster until I was in my 30s when I actually got to play a grandmaster. And now I see these guys all the time. It's amazing. How did I get here? To this day, I don't know how I got here. Now I’m the scholastic rep. And I look around and see all these great chess players and these great chess people and I'm humbled by being here. I appreciate it. I do. But I guess it all started because I believe in this game. I really do. I mean, I'm not the best player. I'm not the smartest person. But nobody loves chess as much as me. It is the only thing I can say I'm a grandmaster at. I'm a grandmaster of loving chess." - Robert McKenzie


"I’m 14 and I’ve been playing chess for five to six years. I practice online, on Chess.com, mostly by myself. Though I don’t take part in my local chess community much, I really like the competitiveness of chess. This isn’t my first tournament. I played my first tournament in 2016 and was in the K-3 section. I came in close to last place out of maybe 30 people. I cried a lot. But a month later, at my next tournament, I did a lot better after studying more. I was still playing in the K-3 section, but I tied for second. I recently played in the eighth-grade section at the K-12 Grades National. I scored 5½ out of 7, one point behind the winner. I was really happy about that." - Ishnoor Singh Chandi

More "Faces" coming soon: check back every Friday!

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