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Checkmate: Missoula club gets kids interested in a different kind of social sport

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Posted at 2:00 PM, Nov 06, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-06 16:00:10-05

MISSOULA — With bishops, rooks and pawns, Missoula's youth comes together every month for the friendly game of chess.

Missoula Chess Club has a goal of getting as many people in front of a chess board as possible. Part of achieving that goal is youth chess night at the Missoula Public Library every first Thursday of the month.

The Missoula Chess Club’s youth nights begin after school at 3:30 p.m., where around 40 kids gather to use the club’s boards, pieces and clocks. Experience levels span from beginners to championship players.

“We get all across the spectrum here from beginner up to almost expert level, you know here in Montana, from kindergarten to 12th grade,” president of Missoula Chess Club, Eric Walthall says. “One of our kids, who is in the eighth grade, was here helping us last week and then went off to a tournament and beat a master level player at a tournament in Kalispell.”

Walthall is also the director of Montana Scholastic Chess with the Montana Chess Association. He started getting involved with the organizations in 2018.

Ironically, he is not a fan of the game, instead, Walthall is involved because of his own children.

“My kids were both, and are both still, STEM-focused kids,” he says. “They both got addicted to chess at a young age in elementary school playing on their school chess club. And then you fast forward six, seven years, and I'm taking my kid to nationals to represent Montana.”

While he never expected to be so enveloped in the chess world, Walthall has seen his son reap plenty of benefits from playing chess.

“He became friends with doctors, lawyers, you know, his mentors became grown men and women that played chess with him on the weekends,” he says. “And where he maybe didn't fit in at school socially, it became an outlet for him to really socialize with the common interest being chess.”

With his son now grown, Wilthall wants to pass the same positive impact onto the next group of kids.

“We want to see chess passed on to another generation, especially in a time when video games, Instagram, all these distractions they have– this can be a distraction where at least they are interacting with another human being across the chessboard.”

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Eric Walthall is the president of the Missoula Chess Club. He got involved with Missoula chess after seeing the positive impact it had on his own children.

Youth chess night is not focused on instruction; its main goal is to be fun. Still, there is often an experienced player on-hand to help the kids with questions, or even to be a difficult opponent.

“I just enjoy teaching the game,” Wilton Strickland, a volunteer with Missoula Chess Club says. “It takes some of the stress off competitive play, because chess tournaments are very stressful. So if I get a chance to interact with some kids, I can just relax a little bit more. It's fun.”

Florida-native, Strickland started playing chess in high school, but took a hiatus while he attended law school. After moving to Missoula in 2010, he picked up the game again. He’s happy to see the sport grow in popularity.

“It's a wonderful growing chess scene in Montana,” he says. “When I got here years ago, there weren't that many people, just a few of us. And now it's just incredible. I see new faces all the time. So I encourage everybody to maybe come on out and play a little bit.”

Strickland points the rise in popularity to popular TV-shows, like The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, as well as passionate organizations like Missoula Chess Club.

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Wilton Strickland is originally from Florida and began playing chess in high school. He now competes competitively at tournaments in Montana.

On Saturday, Nov. 11, Missoula Chess Club will host their 42nd annual Turkey Open chess tournament for local, competitive chess players, including kids. Registration for the tournament can be made online and costs $40 for adults and $10 for youth. There will be cash prizes for winners. More information is on Missoula Chess Club’s Facebook page.

The club is flying grand master chess player Varuzhan Akobian into Missoula from St.Louis for the tournament.

On Friday, Nov. 10, Akobian will be at Loyola Sacred Heart High School to play 30 local chess players simultaneously, including nine kids from Missoula Chess Club’s youth program.

“I'm so glad some of our kids are gonna get a chance to play one of the best chess players in the world,” Walthall says. “That's, I mean, it's something that’s unique… trying to give the kids that experience.”

Starting in December, youth chess night at the library will be held every first, and third Thursday of the month. The chess club also hosts adult chess night every Wednesday at the VFW.

As a non-profit, donations are always appreciated, but what the club really needs, according to Walthall, is volunteers to facilitate clubs at local elementary schools.

“If we have a volunteer in a school, the kids will play, our numbers go up here at the city level. If the volunteer at the school stops volunteering or leaves teaching, then our numbers go down because the kids don't have the opportunity in the school. So if there's a principal in elementary school right now, give us a call. We'll get you everything you need.”

More information on Missoula Chess Club and their upcoming events can be found on their website.