Chess heaven at new local club
It's only been a few weeks since the soft opening of the Chess Club of Fairfield County, LLC, located at 710 West Ave. in Norwalk, and its directors are already getting overwhelming positive feedback.
"We challenged a chess club from New Britain. They brought 12 guys down and played 12 of our guys. And one of them commented that he had `died and gone to chess heaven.' And that's exactly what we are going for," said Melvin Patrick, club director, on Monday.
"This is what every chess player dreams of and what we've talked about for years."
Patrick's partner in the club, Daniel Lowinger, a Chinese, English and chess teacher at the Pierrepont School in Westport, grew up in the 80s and 90s playing chess in school cafeterias, city parks and church basements. He said he always wondered why even distinguished chess players found themselves playing in less than glamorous conditions. As he grew older, he envisioned a venue that was equal to the task of being home to all the different ways in which people engage chess.
"We've called ourselves the chess Diaspora -- we would meet all over, McDonald's, wherever people would have us. We'd go anywhere," Patrick continued.
"Now we have the club on West Avenue, and it's custom designed for chess and for chess players of all ages, for the study of chess, for instruction, casual play and tournament play ... So often at scholastic events, parents find themselves sitting in cold hallways while their children play. We offer comfortable lounges, a library with classic and modern chess texts and a break room," Patrick said.
Patrick, a Norwalk resident, has been bringing chess to the local community for years. He founded Fairfield County Chess, the United States Chess Federation's Connecticut affiliate and has 16 years of scholastic chess under his belt. He's developed chess curriculum for the Norwalk Housing Authority, the George Washington Carver Center, and is a chess instructor for the Norwalk Library.
Lowinger, also a Norwalk resident, is the scholastic director at the Chess Club of Fairfield County.
Among the offerings at the new chess club is a scholastic enrichment program. Parents can send their children four days a week to the after-school program featuring a curriculum created by Lowinger. Children will not only learn the rules and strategies of chess, they will develop skills with wide academic application: thoughtful analysis, creative planning, pattern recognition, logical reasoning, patience, concentration and abstract thought.
Lowinger has taught at the Pierrepont School since 2006. He started a chess club there and it grew as he reached out to other schools to compete against.
Now Lowinger is looking forward to growing membership in the Chess Club of Fairfield County.
"We have a lot of people on our contact list who have been coming to our events for a while ... We are having our first kids' tournament at the West Avenue facility for k-2 on Sunday. The following weekend we are hosting one for kids in grades 3-5. As our regular programming starts to take off and people who are familiar with us start coming through our building, hopefully that will grow our membership," Lowinger said.
Among the regular programming on tap for people of all ages, in addition to tournaments, is private instruction, group lectures and chess camps. Recreational services include casual play, United States Chess Federation-rated tournaments and team matches. The center will be open from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday and on the weekends from noon until 10 p.m.
Both directors promise that chess offers something for everyone if they just give it a try.
"We have players from age 5 to people in their 80s. That's the great thing about chess. Not only can people of all ages play, but then can play each other. A five-year-old can play an 80-year-old. Your strength is not determined by your age. There are young players better than I am. Age is not the driver in what determines how strong of a chess player you are," Patrick said.
Lowinger believes one of the things potential chess players would be most surprised about is that there are a varied set of skills that they can bring to the game.
"It's not this one set of skills and you are either good at it or not. Something that I have come across a lot with adults that seems to be a misunderstanding is they think of chess as utilizing a singular type of skill," Lowinger said. "For example there seems to be an association with chess and mathematical skills.
"I am terrible at math. I mean I practically flunked out of math in high school, and when I went to college, one of the reasons I chose the college I did, is it didn't require me to take any math at all. And I am one of the best chess players in the country."
The game of chess is played on a checkered board by two players, each with 16 pieces, whose object is to capture checkmate, the opponent's king. Each player begins with a king, a queen, two bishops, two knights, two rooks or castles, and eight pawns.
Lowinger pointed out that since chess is such a complicated game, players can really approach it from many different angles.
"For example, some people are good at literature, and one way to play chess is to construct a narrative about what you are doing. You can be very successful with that approach," Lowinger said.
Lowinger began his journey to becoming one of the best players in the country at the age of 5, when his dad began teaching him chess moves.
"I was very lucky that in the town I grew up in, Great Neck, Long Island, there was a serious chess club that met every Tuesday night just a few blocks from where I lived. So I started going there and meeting lots of friends and playing really seriously and it kind of took off from there," Lowinger said.
"What I liked about it then, and what I still like the most about it, is the diverse friendships I am able to make through chess. It's really amazing. All sorts of people are drawn to chess from all kinds of backgrounds. It doesn't matter how old you are or what your politics are or what your financial situation is like. As a kid that was really exciting, I was meeting all kinds of different people. But the one thing that connected everyone was the chess."
Lowinger is a USCF certified life master, the highest certified national title. The USCF awards the national master title to any player who reaches a rating of 2200. Less than one percent of rated players hold the title. A life master is a national master who has played 300 games with a rating over 2200. Lowinger said the best player in the world is rated at around 2800.
Like Lowinger, Patrick can't remember a time when he wasn't passionate about chess and he wanted to share that passion with kids who went to the Carver Center and who lived in housing operated by the NHA.
"I have always found it to be enjoyable, accessible and productive for children to learn... What got me involved in tournaments was I began working with the Norwalk Library some four or five years ago and met Cliff Potts and the late Robert Musicant, who started chess at the library. (The library has since named the chess room at the library after Musicant.) Prior to meeting those to gentleman I had a full life and many interests, and then it was pretty much all chess, all the time," Patrick said with a laugh.
"There hadn't really been any quality tournaments around so I started organizing more of them. It was something I wanted to do for chess. I reached out to and attracted some of the best players around the country. We also had international grand masters coming to the Norwalk Library to play chess."
Both directors pointed out they have reached out to Scrabble players in the area in the hopes the club can also host some Scrabble tournaments.
"We are pretty flexible," Lowinger said. "One of the differences between our club and other chess clubs out there, not that there are very many, is that the other ones that I know of kind of impose their programming on you. You go there and you have to do whatever is on the schedule. Where as that isn't really our concept. Chess players are sort of a vagrant group, they kind of wander from place to place looking to play and we just wanted to give people a home and a place where they can settle in. Beyond that, we are very flexible. If a group of our members wanted to create an event, we'd be very open to that."
He also pointed out that you don't have to be a member to use the club. People can purchase day passes as well.
One of the things Lowinger would like to see happen -- and he has already started working on it -- is to get a strong women's chess program going.
"What happens with chess is women will come to a chess club and there is such an overwhelming percentage of men that they'll gradually kind of move away from it ... Maybe we will do a mother/daughter class ... I was interviewing one of the women's chess masters recently -- she's one of the best players in the country, and she was really interested in doing a program here.
"It tends to be viewed as a man's game, and I would like to see that change/evolve."
Regular membership at the club costs $300 per year. Scholastic membership (18 and under) costs $420 per year. Family membership (2 adults and 2 scholastics) costs $1140 per year. A senior membership costs $180 per year. A day pass costs $10 per day.
For information, visit www.fairfieldcountychess.com.