Chess clubs set up in Carrboro

By Elizabeth Jensen

Jason Casden’s dad can beat him in about 15 moves, blindfolded. His dad turns his back to the board and tells his son where to move his pieces.

His dad is a scholastic chess instructor and has achieved a master’s level ranking. He leads the Mulligan Chess Club at Scottie’s Coffee & Tea House in Worthington, Ohio.

“He always wants to have me get beaten by one of his third or fourth graders,” Casden said.

“There you go, attacking me already,” Sharon Eisner says as Jason Casden moves his knight to a position that threatens her queen, the most powerful piece in a chess game. “Look at that, no fear.” Tyler Jessee, 11, watches and thinks about how he’d get out of the trap. (Staff photo by Elizabeth Jensen)

In November, Casden visited his dad’s club, and the relaxed, fun environment inspired him to start the Carrboro Chess Club. The club meets at 3 p.m. on Saturdays at Jessee’s Coffee & Bar at 401 E. Main St.

But Casden isn’t the only one starting a chess club in Carrboro.

Henry Johnston heads the Rising Tide Chess Club that meets Wednesdays, 6 p.m., at Open Eye Café at 101 S. Greensboro St.

“The idea is that a drop of water all alone dries up, but when we come together, we’ll be a rising tide that will sink all of the ships,” club member Eric Slavin said. “If one of us wins a tournament, we will have all have won.”

Johnston started meeting informally with local players after he returned from Iceland in May. He was there to learn Icelandic. In the fall, he went to Ukraine for three months to study chess from an international master.

After Ukraine, Johnston made Rising Tide’s meetings official and posted meeting times on Craigslist. Both clubs welcome players of all skill levels.

Chess rankings start at 800 and goes to above 2400. To become a grandmaster, a player must have had a rating of at least 2500 at one time.

Johnston’s ranking is about 1500, and his goal is to reach 2000.

“We love the game,” he said. “We want to see beginners come and learn. A grandmaster might not be particularly interested, but we don’t have any grandmasters in North Carolina.”

The club members work together on strategies and analyze each other’s tournament games.

“It’s been huge to practice and learn from the diversity of minds that approach chess,” Johnston said. “Everyone has a different way of working with the same 64 squares and 32 pieces.”

Rising Tide members pride themselves in less conventional game openings and creative strategies. Slavin is known for sacrificing pieces to gain a better positioning in the game, Johnston said.

“It’s a slaughter bench for your pride,” Slavin said. “The game always wins.”

Sharon Eisner in the Carrboro Chess Club understands that completely, she said. While she was attending Brooklyn College in New York, the chess club was recruiting women by offering them free lessons.

“I spent two years never winning a game,” she said. “And I didn’t win many more after that, just for the record,” she added with a laugh.

After college she stopped playing regularly. Before going to the meetings at Jessee’s she hadn’t played chess for more than two years. And in that game two years ago, she gave up her queen, the most powerful piece, without a fight, she said.

She said she was nervous joining a club again.

“There you go attacking me already,” Eisner said to Casden as he moved a knight into a position that threatened her queen, during her first game with the Carrboro Chess Club. “Look at that, no fear.”

But Eisner saved her queen that turn.

“This is a place to build skills out of fun, not out of shame,” Casden said. “We’re really trying to emphasize that it’s focused on the casual player.”

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