Checkmate: The Booming Normal Western Chess Program

Normal West has become the latest intercity school to put its chess program on the map.

Three of Bloomington-Normal’s top chess programs all have one thing in common: Garrett Scott helped them get there.
Scott began learning to play chess with his older brother at the ripe old age of 4.

“I was moving the pieces for him, he was checking me out regularly,” Scott recalls. “I got some things done in terms of losing hundreds of games, but I learned the moves.”

Credit Eric Stock/WGLT

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Normal West chess coach Garrett Scott plays a match against student Luke Merian during a recent practice.

Scott said his brother let him win once in a while, and by third grade the younger brother was good enough to play chess against his peers.

Seven decades later, Scott led a third Twin City high school program to chess success. After earlier stints at Bloomington High School beginning in the 1960s and later at University High in Normal, where he led the Pioneers to a state title in 1999 and several other top-10 finishes, he helped create a chess program from scratch at Normal West.

The Wildcats took 10th place in the Illinois High School Association State Finals in Peoria earlier this month. It was West’s third consecutive victory among the top chess teams in Illinois. West also won first place in the recent State Coaches Tournament.

Scott is modest about the program’s sudden success.

“I wouldn’t call it elite, I would definitely say we’re among the very good and other schools know us,” Scott said.

Scott shares coaching duties with Vicki Kafer. She handles much of the team’s logistics, planning, public transportation, supervising training, and more.

She convinced Normal West to start the chess program in 2010 when she knew West was about to have several students, including her son, who were interested in the game. Her daughter later also played on the team.

Scott trained them both.

Kafer saw Scott’s coaching style firsthand. She said he not only teaches players how to win, he also teaches them how to lose with dignity.

“At the end of the game, there is always someone who is heartbroken by the results,” Kafer explained. “He’s great at helping them get through this. As a young player, it’s difficult.

“There are going to be tears, there are going to be (players) getting up and leaving. He teaches them all the good things about it.

sibling rivalry

When two brothers face off in a game of chess, one of them is bound to lose.

As Normal West senior Clayton Davis says, that meant his younger brother Jacob picked up his tunes over and over again when they were younger, until he figured out the game.

“Oh yeah, I always beat him when we were younger,” Clayton Davis recalled. “Then in first year for me and sixth for him, he started to get better. He certainly took a lot longer than me. You can see the growth he had had.

The Davis brothers are now two of the best players in Normal West. Jacob Davis, now a freshman, said those chess matches as a child developed his love for the game and competition.

“I just think it’s really interesting, it changes all the time and it’s fun to beat others,” said Jacob Davis.

But chess is not just about winning and losing. Coach Scott said the mental gymnastics required by the game can be an essential learning tool. He said the best players tend to be more successful in the real world.

“Evaluation, planning, and execution are three elements of critical thinking that are useful in any kind of science and sometimes in writing as well,” Scott said.

Jacob said chess helped him in class, sometimes literally.

“Even in school, whenever I feel like I’m not doing so well, I take out my phone and play chess online and keep playing until I pass and once I pass, my mind is settling and I’m ready to go,” he said, adding that his teachers had no idea he was doing this. Don’t worry: Jacob is a straight college student taking classes with honors .

Normal West senior Joseph Kessinger has been playing chess since kindergarten and now teaches chess at two primary schools. He said chess helped him in the classroom by showing that there are no shortcuts.

“It helped me take school more seriously because I understand better through chess that actions have consequences because in a game if you make a mistake you get punished immediately,” Kessinger said. “If you don’t do your homework and your grades go down, you can see it.”

Kessinger said that in addition to training twice a week, he studies chess 4-5 hours a night. He plans to put off college for a year to pursue a career in chess.

Scott said there will always be children who want to play chess because of the desire for competition and critical thinking, but he noticed that more and more students are struggling to keep up with the game at the digital age.

“We have several that need to go fast, do it and chess, I believe, is a valuable training tool to slow down and think about it,” Scott said. “It’s not as prevalent now as when we were in school.”

The Davis brothers also play school and club football where they see parallels to chess. Jacob, for example, is the guardian.

“I’m like the chess player where I organize my team where we have the best chance of winning,” Jacob said. “I tell my defenders where they should be and how they should play and so that has a lot to do with it.”

Older brother Clayton sees football as a release from the stress of chess and vice versa.

“One weekend it will be chess, if I have a bad weekend the next weekend it will be football and usually it goes pretty well, then a bad football weekend and then there will be chess,” said Clayton Davis. “It comes and goes and usually the following week is better than last week.”

Jacob Davis said he encouraged several of his football teammates to play chess, but there is a stigma attached to the game that is too much for some to overcome.

“There are a few (who play chess) but a lot of them just think it’s for nerds, but it’s actually pretty cool,” Jacob said.

Kessinger and junior Evan Ericson were Normal West’s top performers in the state chess finals. They both finished with 6 out of a possible 7 points. Jacob Davis has won five of seven games. Clayton Davis won two out of three games in the final.

Bloomington High School finished 54th in the IHSA finals, U-High came in 66th out of Illinois’ top 124 chess programs. Chicago’s Whitney Young won the title with a perfect score in seven innings.

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