When you think chess club, the quintessential picture that comes to mind probably doesn’t include a cowboy or a retired mill worker. The image of high school über-nerds or brilliant eccentrics like Bobby Fisher or Gary Kasparov dominate the vision of chess in popular culture.
But Bruce Goodwin says that’s not the chess he knows, and he should know. He plays twice a week with the Smoky Mountain Chess Club, a group that meets both in Waynesville and Sylva and draws members from as far away as Bryson City.
Goodwin is the group’s leader and today, he’s sitting in front of an oversize wooden chess set in Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville, reenacting the moves from a master match played in the ‘30s with fellow member Bob Hollingworth.
Goodwin is the retired mill worker, while Bob is what you might call the cowboy. A ring on every finger, a straw cowboy hat and a T-shirt that reads: “life is like a chess match, many challenges and choices and without a queen the king will likely fail.”
That, says Hollingworth, sipping from a coffee cup emblazoned with “Dixie Chess Confederacy”, is the true genius of chess — it’s universality.
“The beauty of chess is you can be young, you can be old, you can be disabled. It’s something anybody can do, you’re not restricted,” says Hollingworth. “No matter how good or bad you are, there’s always somebody who’s on your level or close to it.”
Their group meets biweekly, on Thursdays from 2 to 4 p.m. at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville and on Tuesdays at 1 p.m. in the Jackson County Senior Center in Sylva.
Because of the meeting times, Goodwin says the group draws mostly retirees, though from many different backgrounds.
But the tournaments are a different story.
The Smoky Mountain Chess Club is what’s called an affiliated club, which means they’re connected to the North Carolina Chess Association and they hold sanctioned, nationally rated tournaments. In the world of competitive chess, players are ranked according to their successes in sanctioned tournaments, and Goodwin’s group is the only one offering them west of Asheville.
They have one scheduled for Saturday, August 13, at the Jackson County Library in Sylva.
The tournaments usually have two components: the free event, where anyone can come and play against others without charge, and the rated tournament, which has a fee but also offers a prize and the chance to enter the chess tournament scene or better your rankings.
At the tournaments, says Goodwin, is where you really see the diversity of chess aficionados.
“We get all ages,” says Goodwin. “We have strangers that we’ve never seen before who show up. We will have kids, and you know, the gamut. I mean, that’s part of the fun of it is who will show up.”
Kids, he says, are actually surprisingly good at tournament chess. Goodwin used to teach a class exclusively for children, and he tells the story of one particularly successful 12-year-old who told him she kept with the game because it was her chance to beat the grownups.
In that sense, too, say Goodwin and Hollingworth, the stereotype that chess is only for geniuses or the sole preserve of highly mathematical minds is also false. Anyone, from kids to retirees, can play and succeed, even without the analytical skills to think 10 moves out.
“That’s a common misconception,” says Goodwin. “People think chess players think way ahead, and the truth is that it’s about three moves maximum, usually just one or two moves ahead. A really strong chess player looks at the position of what’s going on on the battlefield and you just try to improve your position and look for weaknesses in the opponent’s camp.”
The real reward, he says, from novice to grand master, is the constant challenge the game presents.
“Chess is hard work, it is not something for a lazy person. It’s mental work, but it’s hard work and it takes discipline and patience to be a really champion chess player. But if you do that and work harder than your opponent, then you get rewarded,” he says. “You can’t hardly sleep at night you’re so proud of yourself.”
And anyone, he says, is always welcome to visit the club at their weekly locales. They’ll even teach you for free, but they’ll give you fair warning — you might just get hooked.
Open chess tournament
What: A tournament open to anyone who wants to play, followed by a rated event, which will be a warm-up and training for the N.C. Open in Charlotte over Labor Day Weekend.
When: Saturday, August 13
Where: Jackson County Library
How Much: Free
What else: Spectators are welcome. Games begin at 9 a.m. and participants are asked to let the club know in advance if they will be attending. Registration will begin at 8 a.m.