Children That Checkmate: The silent sport enrapturing Eugene’s youth
Words by Tess Novotny, Photos by Meghan Jacinto
Oregon state chess champion Ian Vo reads a book titled Russian Chess as he simultaneously plays six games of chess against his fellow club members. He flips pages and walks slowly from one board to another, pausing at each for a few seconds to quietly contemplate his next move. Ian is 10 years old and in fifth grade. “I’ve been playing since I was four, but I only got really serious once I was seven,” he says.
To outsiders, competitive chess is an obscure section of youth sports. But to the parents and kids who participate in chess clubs, teams and tournaments, it is a community driven by unique camaraderie and sharp intellect for the 1,500-year-old game.
Competitive chess players can compete in tournaments as individuals and teams at the city, regional, state, and national levels. They have electronic ratings that increase or decrease based on the outcomes of every tournament game they play.
At the Chess for Success regional tournament, which qualifies individuals and teams for the Oregon State Championship, seventh grader and state champion Victor Dossin, age 12, laughs with his chess buddies between matches. Sometimes they are even paired against each other in the competition.
Dossin wishes people would get excited for the World Chess Championship the way they do for the Superbowl. “They think it’s only a board game, but I think it’s more than that,” he says. “It’s like a society with lots of members that just love playing the game. There are so many different ways you can play it, it’s kind of amazing.”
This tournament is run by Jerry Ramey through his organization Southside Chess. Ramey also runs Edison Elementary chess club, three other elementary school clubs, one middle school club, and one high school club in Eugene. Ramey became interested in chess when his now grown son, Forrest, wanted to learn the game in elementary school. He taught him and helped out at his school’s chess club. When Forrest went to middle school, he started a club there. As more kids and parents became interested in learning from Ramey, he decided to make it his full time job. Over the 25 years since he began teaching chess, Ramey has coached two individuals and one team to winning national championships, not to mention about 80 state champions. Forrest won multiple state championships, and now coaches chess as well.
“They think it’s only a board game, but I think it’s more than that.”
Ramey believes that playing chess while young fosters brain development and important life skills. “My theory is that if you work the brain a lot during that time, then you’re gonna have more brain cells,” he says. “I’m always impressed with my former students who have grown up and gone onto great careers. Most of the ones who stuck with chess through school are very successful people and students in college.”
Competitive team chess player and coach Sophia Dossin, 17, runs a weekly all-girls club in Ramey’s home chess studio. Competitive chess is heavily male dominated, so she designed this club to empower girls to learn about chess in a safe, supportive atmosphere of peers.
The high school senior and state champion says she experienced discrimination from boy players as one of few girls in her clubs and teams as a kid. One time, she sat down across from her male opponent at a tournament and he asked, “What are you doing here? Girls don’t play chess.” She remembers another incident when a male opponent scoffed and laughed with his friend when she got to the board. “It was fun because I creamed him,” she says.
“One of my big motivators for starting this girls class is I recognize how hard it is to put yourself out there,” Sophia says. “Chess is all about taking a risk; if you don’t have a lot of people around you that are similar to you, or if you’re not in a place where you know you are supported, it can be hard to come out of your shell.”
The club is growing by the week – she started with just a few girls, and now there are nine regular members. During the hour-long class, young girls alternate between absorbing every lesson with rapt attention and exploding with questions and excited laughter. Sophia says she is constantly moved by girls encouraging other girls to play. A few weeks ago, she overheard a conversation between two club-members about an upcoming tournament: “If you’re gonna play, I’ll play,” one whispered.
“Chess was kind of a heavy door for me to open, and I feel so privileged and honored that I get to hold open this door for a bunch of young girls,” says Sophia. She hopes to continue growing the club and someday build a team of passionate, strong female players to compete in tournaments.
Ian, Victor, and Sophia agree that competitive chess is rewarding. Ian plans to continue competing through middle and high school, as does Victor. Victor says he doesn’t think he’ll go professional as an adult, but believes his love for the game will remain strong for the rest of his life. Sophia is waiting on acceptance letters from colleges before she plans her next move as a coach. If she stays in Eugene and attends the University of Oregon, she will continue to grow the girls club here. If she leaves, she wants to start another girls club wherever she ends up. They have all grown strong friendships in the sport and confidence in themselves under Ramey’s coaching. Even when they lose, they find strength to push forward and play a better game next time. As Jerry once told Sophia when she felt low, “you either win or you learn.”