Locals hope to expand chess program statewide

Picture this: two people playing chess. Did your mind automatically conjure an image of two elderly men, possibly in tweed or cardigans, hunched over a chessboard in a local park? If it did, you wouldn’t be alone.

Here in Homer, there’s a new demographic dominating the chess scene, and most of its members can’t even drive yet. The chess club held for kids at the Homer Public Library has been taking off, according to founder Colleen Evanco. This has prompted her, local defense attorney Andy Haas and chess expert Jonathon Singler to launch a statewide nonprofit dedicated to getting the game into as many schools as possible.

It all started when Evanco realized she couldn’t beat her 5-year-old son in a game of chess. As a homeschooled child, Sebastian liked to play chess when weather didn’t permit going outside, Evanco said. He eventually taught her how to play.

“And he was just continuing to check mate me,” she said. “And I didn’t understand all the rules of the game, and so I started looking for resources.”

Evanco found a free online program called ChessKid.

“And I started to learn more about the game, and my son still continued to beat me,” she said.

Evanco soon realized her son needed other kids at his own level to play against. Two summers ago she reached out through Facebook and organized a meet up for parents of children who were interested in chess at K-Bay Caffé in Homer. The number of families who showed up shocked her.

Eventually the meetings were moved to a room in the Homer Public Library, where an official chess club was established. It meets weekly and has run for the past two summers.

That’s where Haas came in. He met Evanco as a member of the Friends of the Homer Library, and quickly became interested in helping out with the chess club.

“Chess has had an interesting periodic in Homer,” Haas said, referencing other clubs and a program at Homer High School.

Even when this most recent iteration of a chess club expanded into the library, it soon outgrew itself again.

“I started to get overwhelmed because there were kids on the floor playing,” Evanco said. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

As Evanco and Haas began getting more involved with the local chess club, they found themselves obtaining chessboards wherever they could and handing them out to kids who didn’t have their own. Forming a nonprofit felt like the natural next step, they said.

Haas, Evanco and Singler, a graduate student attending Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, have called the statewide nonprofit Alaska Chess, and formed it in April of this year in order to spread the game even farther. Singler, a nationally ranked chess expert, has made integrating chess into rural Alaska communities part of his studies for his masters degree.

The immediate goal is to raise funds to purchase chessboards, and to get those boards into as many local schools as possible. The ideal would be for Evanco, Haas and Singler to go into schools, present students with the boards and curriculum, and be able to leave knowing the school had what it needed to support its own chess club.

“It blows me away each time, when you’ve got a 7-year-old that not only finds it fun, but you show him a chess problem and he thinks it’s fascinating,” Haas said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous to think a 7-year-old can look at, like, two kings and a pawn, and (figure out) whether it’s going to be a stalemate or a mate.”

Though it may not seem like a typical kid’s activity, there are plenty of reasons Haas and Evanco want to promote chess.

“From 4 to around 14, maybe younger, but this is when the brain is most active,” Evanco said. “And to be able to ask these questions that adults have a really hard time answering, and these kids are just picking it up …we would just like as much support as we can.”

Haas recalled helping out with the chess club at the high school.

“The remarkable thing is that you have kids of all ability, of all different academic ranges — including special ed(ducation) kids — who did remarkably well on chess, and developed the pride and self confidence,” he said. “There were a lot of young girls that were kind of on the fence (about) whether it would be cool to play chess or be cool to be smart. And through their involvement with chess, I like to think they found it cool to be smart.”

Eventually, the group hopes to host competitions between schools statewide.

“Really I did it for my son, but the community pushed it and really gave it life,” Evanco said of the explosion of youth chess in Homer.

Now living in Soldotna, Evanco said she’s looking to spread chess through the schools there.

In order to help raise funds to get chess boards and curriculum into schools, Alaska Chess holds a golf fundraiser from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, July 29, at the Fireweed Meadows Golf Course in Anchor Point. There will be chess trivia, kids games and a hot barbecue lunch.

The group has achieved success with one local school already. Haas said chess boards were brought into West Homer Elementary School last year, and students got some instruction on the game. Now, the school officially hosts its own club and will continue to do so this year. Haas said the next step will probably be to expand that to Homer Middle School.

“I love to see that self confidence that’s so attainable in such a really beautiful game,” he said of chess. “I’ve played people (in) these elaborately beautiful games where it’s like setting up artwork. You know, the opening transforms into the middle game, and you’re not capturing pieces, but you’re establishing a tension across the board that is inevitably going to break. And it’s almost tragic when it does break.”

Fore more information on the Alaska Chess nonprofit, visit alaskachess.org. For more information on this weekend’s fundraiser, call Haas at 235-3270.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.