On a recent Thursday afternoon, more than two dozen kids, some as young as five years old, faced off over rows of chess boards. They were tucked into the back corner of the Island’s New York Public Library branch. On the sidelines, an excited crowd of parents, siblings, and impatient challengers paced nervously, occasionally blurting out, “That’s check!” before being shushed by a nearby adult.
By the time the last checkmate was called, four chess-savvy Islanders – Aidan Amin, brothers David and Eoin McGonagle, and Donald Semenza – would take home first place trophies in the library’s second annual Roosevelt Island chess tournament.
“It’s grown so much,” says librarian Anthony Winns of the chess program he and fellow librarians started two years ago. In the beginning, says Winns, the library’s weekly chess club had about four regular participants. These days, the chess club sees an average of 12 to 16, mostly kids. He attributes the growth at least partly to the introduction of free one-on-one chess instruction, which is held Saturday afternoons by appointment.
“After we started doing that, the Thursday chess sessions started picking up a lot,” he says. “And then other kids would see their friends sitting in here and would ask what they’re doing. Next thing, they’d start coming too. It’s a lot of word of mouth.”
For this year’s tournament, 36 challengers signed up. The players were divided into four groups: ages five to six, seven to nine, ten to twelve, and thirteen and above, with three trophies awarded in each category.
From the youngest group, Aidan Amin took home first place, while Ethan Shah took third. (The second place winner declined to be named.) First place in the 7-9 group went to David McGonagle, second to Andy Chan, and third to Shotaro Akagawa. Eoin McGonagle took home first place for the 10-12 age bracket, with Hannah Block taking second place, and Andrew Ajose-Alatise taking third. From the adults, Donald Semenza came in first with Mohamed Elfadil and Jahrah King taking second and third, respectively.
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For Winns, it was rewarding to see so many kids excited about the game. “I’ve seen a lot of kids getting better. Some kids who started not knowing anything I’ve seen here playing in the tournament. So I feel good about that.”
“This was my first tournament ever,” said Ajose-Alatise as he proudly held his third-place trophy for the 10-13 age group. “I’m feeling pretty satisfied.”
The library holds a youth chess club every Thursday at 4:00 p.m. and an adult chess club every Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. There are also a limited number of spots available each Saturday for free one-on-one chess instruction with one of the branch’s librarians. The Saturday spaces fill up fast; the library is currently taking reservations for April. Visit the library at 524 Main Street to sign up.