Mr. Aaron Brock’s classroom has been filled to capacity during lunch time.
Throughout the school year, up to 20 students would make their way to Room 102 every day to eat their lunch and play chess. They’d grab a chess set from the back of the room and pair up with their peers. Sometimes, students hovered over an intense game as the players ran out of time.
This is the new Chess Club at Felicitas & Gonzalo Méndez High School.
In recent years, the game of chess – which has been around for centuries – has gained major popularity among all ages, including teens. This January, Chess.com said its servers were struggling after recording 10 million users, an all-time high for a single day of play. The Chess.com app also reached No. 2 in the Top Free Games section of the iOS app store in the United States.
The site said it’s impossible to pinpoint a specific reason behind the chess boom, but pointed to the pandemic lockdowns as well as the popular Netflix series, “The Queen’s Gambit,” which tells the story of an orphaned girl who makes her way to becoming a chess grandmaster.
The trend is also alive at Felicitas & Gonzalo Méndez High School, where the Chess Club has been growing in membership. Dozens of students played chess every day during break and lunch time. The club wrapped up its first competition in April, marking the first-ever chess tournament at Méndez. It ended in a repetition draw.
Manny Rivera was one of the tournament’s winners.
He learned to play in January this year and has been actively playing since.
“I enjoy playing because I have to use my brain, and I get to beat all my friends,” Rivera said. “A bunch of my friends are in the club and I enjoy playing with them.”
Rivera said the tournament was fun and enjoyed how competitive it got. But, because it ended in a draw, Rivera said he felt “pretty indifferent” with the result. Raul Charro was the other winner.
“I feel like I could have done better,” Rivera said.
Brock, the teacher who sponsors the club, plans to make the tournament an annual event. He wants the club to participate in chess tournaments outside of Méndez next year.
This year’s competition started off with 36 competitors, and through a series of elimination rounds, was down to two finalists. The final game took place in the school’s multipurpose building and was projected onto a screen, allowing everyone to see the participants’ moves.
Brock had a board game club in the past, but this year it exclusively became a chess club. He said the club has far exceeded expectations.
However, the club, like the game, has a gender imbalance with only three female members in a room filled with more than 20 male students.
Brock hopes to encourage more women to join the club by ensuring a safe environment for all to play.
Marlee Ramos is one of the three. Ramos said she hesitated to “actually touch a piece” due to how dominated the game is by men. After a friend taught her the fundamentals, “I almost immediately became interested in strengthening my own skills in a growing room of competitive boys,” Ramos said.
She said she enjoys the opportunities to make friends with others who share the same hobby. It’s also something fun to do during lunch, she said.
“Besides making time pass, it keeps me constantly thinking about what could possibly come next,” Ramos said.
While the club initially met Wednesdays and Thursdays during lunch, students eventually started going every day during break and lunch time. The school also sponsored new time clocks for the competition, and some extra chess sets so the club would have enough for all students.
“Students showed interest, and I wanted to let their enthusiasm lead,” Brock said.