Down at the blue picnic tables in front of Bobby B’s in Vineyard Haven, a showdown of wits and sheer skill begins.
Despite the chilly weather, a group of seven Island folks gather around a few rollout chess mats to test their abstract reasoning and problem-solving skills. There was some light and friendly trash talk (all in the name of the game) and laughs exchanged by all the members of the group — just a few of the joys experienced by members of the Martha’s Vineyard Chess Club.
“The Island has a very strong tradition of chess,” T.J. Reap, coach of the chess club, told The Times. “Dan Sharkovitz started it at the high school in the 80s or 90s, and it’s gone through phases over the years.” Reap got involved with the club after the previous head of the club, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School English teacher Bill McCarthy, handed him the torch.
The club has several meeting spots around the Island, and the chess community here extends much further than just students or members of the club itself. Most Vineyard libraries host their own chess nights, and you can be sure that a large number of chess club members show up to test their mettle and have some fun. But the chess club also has competitions at the Portuguese-American Club, Bobby B’s, down by the harbor in Oak Bluffs, and in the MVRHS library.
At times, there will be 13 or more people who participate in the various chess events and tournaments on the Vineyard. There are some very familiar folks who take part in the fun, including Mike Benjamin, Paul Lazes, Michael Wexler, Mike Alberice, Ed Painter, and many more. When the M.V. Chess Club was in its heyday, they were an official league team that participated in tournaments off-Island and hosted tournaments on the Vineyard as well. “They had won many years dating back to the 90s. I’m sure they still have all the trophies somewhere at the high school,” Reap said.
Back when Reap picked up the torch and worked to revitalize the chess club, he offered a $100 prize for a chess player who could take him on, and many skilled and experienced players stepped up to the challenge. “All the better players were very passionate about it. We found out who the real serious players were, and we reformed the team,” Reap explained. McCarthy connected Reap with the coaches in the official chess league, and before long, the high school team was sitting in second place in their regular season of the South Cape Interscholastic Chess League finals, with Dartmouth High School in the lead.
“We had an extremely exciting finals match with them. We ended up splitting (tying) — Dartmouth won the first match, we won the second match. Well into the third match, Kestutis Biskis thought he was getting beat, but it turned out to be a draw,” Reap said. “Then we all sat around and watched Nikola Nikolov finish. He won the best out of three, and the final score was a tie — it was really exciting.”
According to Reap, there will be around 10 students on the high school team this year, including the past members who brought the Vineyard top honors in the chess league finals. But Reap noted that interest in chess goes far beyond the boundaries of the official club: he personally knows dozens of kids from the high school who use chess.com, a virtual chess platform that allows people to pit themselves against competitors online. “Lots 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 folks who wish to get a rundown of the ins and outs of chess, Reap explained that there are nearly infinite how-to videos and chess instructors on YouTube that provide free access to valuable content. “You can watch the 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 the game down 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, posting up in a public space with a couple chess boards and watching young people gather around for some friendly competition is one of his great joys. Whenever he starts playing, passersby take interest, and in no time there is a big group of all ages huddling around the table. “I have a background in wrestling and many years of football. Chess teaches a lot of the same really important life skills. Even if your opponent beats the heck out of you, you shake their hand and say ‘good match,’” Reap said.
One core element of chess Reap said he enjoys the most is that both sides start out on a level playing field, and it’s up to the competitors to outwit and outthink their opponents. He said chess is a game for everybody, and many skills learned from chess are valuable in other spheres, whether out on the football field, or in daily life. “It’s about understanding strategy, patience, self-confidence; there are so many benefits to playing,” Reap said. “I think it should be a part of the school curriculum at some point early on in the kids’ learning — it’s incredibly valuable and just a lot of fun.”