Checkmate – The Martha’s Vineyard Times

At the blue picnic tables in front of Bobby B’s in Vineyard Haven, a showdown of wit and talent begins.

Despite the cold weather, a group of seven Islanders gather around a few treadmills to test their abstract reasoning and problem-solving skills. There were light and friendly chats (all in the name of the game) and laughter exchanged by everyone in the group – just some of the joys experienced by members of Martha’s Vineyard Chess Club.

“The island has a very strong chess tradition,” TJ Reap, coach of the chess club, told The Times. “Dan Sharkovitz started it in high school in the 80s or 90s, and it went through phases over the years.” Reap became involved with the club after former club leader Bill McCarthy, an English teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, handed him the torch.

The club has several hangouts around the island, and the chess community here extends far beyond students or members of the club itself. Most Vineyard libraries host their own chess nights, and you can be sure that plenty of chess club members show up to test their mettle and have fun. But the chess club also holds competitions at the Portuguese-American club, Bobby B’s, near the port of Oak Bluffs, and at the MVRHS library.

Sometimes 13 or more people will participate in the various chess events and tournaments on the vineyard. There are some very familiar people joining in on the fun, including Mike Benjamin, Paul Lazes, Michael Wexler, Mike Alberice, Ed Painter and many more. When the MV Chess Club was in its heyday, it was an official league team that competed in off-island tournaments and also held tournaments on the vineyard. “They had won many years since the 90s. I’m sure they still have all the trophies somewhere in high school,” Reap said.

Back when Reap took over and worked to revitalize the chess club, he offered a $100 prize for a chess player who could challenge him, and many skilled and experienced players took up the challenge. “All the top players were very passionate about it. We found out who the real serious players were and reformed the team,” Reap explained. McCarthy put Reap in touch with coaches from the official chess league, and soon after, the high school team was in second place in its regular season South Cape Interscholastic Chess League Finals, with Dartmouth High School taking the lead.

“We had an extremely exciting final match with them. We ended up splitting (tied) – Dartmouth won game one, we won game two. Well in game three Kestutis Biskis thought he was beaten but it turned out to be a draw,” said Reap. “Then we all sat and watched Nikola Nikolov finish. He won best of three, and the final score was a tie – that was really exciting.

According to Reap, there will be about 10 students on the high school team this year, including former members who won Vineyard honors in the Chess League Finals. But Reap noted that interest in chess goes well beyond the confines of the official club: he personally knows dozens of high school kids who use chess.com, a virtual chess platform that lets people to compete with online competitors. “A lot of kids use online chess on their phone or computer. There are tons of resources for people who are interested and want to learn the game.”

For people who want an insight into the ins and outs of chess, Reap explained that there are endless how-to videos and chess instructors on YouTube that offer free access to valuable content. “You can watch greats like Magnus Carlsen play in a live game against some of the greatest players in the world,” Reap said. “There are even videos that break down the game into the best principles and all the different tactics you can use to grow as a player.” For Reap, who is also an MVRHS football coach, showing up in a public space with a few chessboards and watching youngsters gather for friendly competition is one of his great joys. Every time he starts playing, passers-by take an interest in him and in no time a large group of all ages is gathering around the table. “I have a wrestling background and many years of football. Chess teaches many of the same very important life skills. Even if your opponent beats you hard, you shake their hand and say ‘good game,’” Reap said.

A core element of chess that Reap said he enjoys the most is that both sides start on an equal footing, and it’s up to the competitors to outsmart and outplay their opponents. He said that chess is a game for everyone and that many skills learned in chess are valuable in other spheres, whether on the football field or in everyday life. “It’s about understanding strategy, patience, self-confidence; there are so many upsides to playing,” Reap said. “I think it should be part of the school curriculum at some point early in children’s learning – it’s incredibly valuable and a lot of fun.”

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