Chess lovers spice up lunch

When Principal Mark Jackson pushed his way through a yelling crowd of ARHS seniors outside the cafeteria one spring afternoon, he found not a fight at the center of the circle as he had expected, but a game of chess. The seniors declared the first of the year’s senior pranks a success.

Although this prank may have been the first time that the general school population was enthused about chess, it was the product of a quiet but long-lasting trend at ARHS. During lunch most days, Julian Clark and Richard Hogans, the players involved in the prank, challenge each other and others to a game in between bites of cafeteria food, played on a board that Clark carries in his backpack.

They are members of an “unofficial chess club” at the school, which convenes at irregular times, essentially whenever two chess players have a free moment together.

Clark attributes the takeoff of chess-playing to fellow senior Marcel Gabbett. “Marcel reminded a bunch of people how fun chess was and reinvigorated our passions, causing this movement,” he said. Gabbett created The Chess Club and frequently challenges the other members to games.

Chess is a huge part of Gabbett’s life, both inside and outside of school. “All six plane trips I’ve taken to Ireland, I’ve spent nearly the entire flight playing chess against computers,” he said.

Gabbett has been playing for 10 years. He learned “in an after-school chess program at Wildwood, but my real teacher was my dad.”

Both Clark and Gabbett have developed their chess skills through research. “I watch tons of videos and have a couple of books on chess strategy,” said Gabbett, “although I really think the best way to learn the tactics and strategies in the game is playing, falling for traps and the like.” Clark agrees that playing is the best way to learn.

Chess has been played for hundreds of years. An early version of chess was first invented in India in the 7th century. By around 1500, it existed more or less as it does today. It was considered a prestigious pastime, played by nobles and featured prominently in art.

Part of the game’s ongoing appeal is linked to the complexity that comes from easy-to-follow gameplay. “Chess is a great game because there is no luck, and the rules are pretty simple. The strategy is very complex, however, and you get to really use your mind,” said Clark.

The requirement of analysis and abstract strategizing is also why some people expected computers to never beat grandmasters at chess, and why the 1997 victory of Deep Blue over then World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov was such an iconic moment in artificial intelligence development. Now, playing chess against computers is common. “Weirdly enough I think in total hours I’ve played against computers more [than people],” said Gabbett.

One issue that Clark brings up is the gender disparity in the chess movement.

“For a long time it was only guys playing chess in school,” he said. While several girls have recently started playing more, the after school library sessions are still all male. “I know I personally would be happy to see more gender diversity.”

Chess has been more recognized recently here, and appears to be much more than a short-lasting trend. Chess has proven itself to hold the same appeal for high schoolers in Amherst as it has for billions over human history.