Almost every Tuesday afternoon, 84-year-old William Brewer leaves his home in Adams Township and drives to the Wendy’s restaurant in Maumee’s northeast end. He sits down at a table in the corner of the eatery, takes out a wooden board adorned with 64 black and white squares, and waits.
The staff knows him well by now. And they know he’s not looking for a cold Frosty.
As he starts arranging pawns, knights, and rooks on the board, he invariably makes eye contact with a customer or the general manager.
“Hey, have you ever played chess?” he asks, before launching into a meticulous and fervent description of the game, its rules, and its beneficial effects on brain development and mental longevity.
He never forgets to mention the name of Coffee House Chess League, an association of amateur chess players that he founded in October, 1994, with five friends at a local Barnes & Noble.
Over the years, the Coffee House Chess League has expanded into a loose network that now includes more than 1,800 registered members, mostly in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.
Keeping your mind young
About 38 chess enthusiasts meet a couple of times every week to compete in multiple rounds of chess face-offs. One day, they sit in a silent room at the Swanton Public Library. Another, you’ll find them absorbed in a game at a McDonald’s in Toledo. Sometimes, they meet at Swan Creek Retirement Village, their eyes always firmly fixed on the board.
“Once you learn how to play chess, you can’t get away from it,” Mr. Brewer said. “It cleanses your mind, it keeps it young.”
More than 70 years ago Mr. Brewer, a former chairman of the construction and design department at Bowling Green State University, received his introduction to the game. He was only 8 years old when his older brother sat down with him, pulled out a chess set, and explained the rules of the game that was to become an enduring staple in Mr. Brewer’s life.
A self-proclaimed chess promoter, he has turned the game into his own mission: for almost 20 years, he has fervently encouraged chess among the youngest, bringing his passion to several elementary schools.
Chess in schools
In 1995, Michael Failor was struggling to find a public venue where he could play his favorite game. His middle school in Perrysburg did not offer an after-school chess program, and the chess scene in his hometown seemed to be dormant.
Through word of mouth Mr. Failor, then 13, chanced upon Coffee House Chess League, the group created by Mr. Brewer the previous year. At the time, the members of the League would meet every Friday night at Sufficient Grounds, a former coffeehouse in Perrysburg.
Mr. Failor found himself competing against dozens of players, facing one opponent after another every week. Throughout high school, he continued to frequent the Friday night chess hot spot, as the League started to attract larger crowds of amateur players.
Hours of playing at Sufficient Grounds paid off when he became the first Perrysburg high school student to win a state title at the Ohio High School Open Championship in 1999.
Today, Mr. Failor works as the head of the advanced analytics department at Enova International Inc., a Chicago-based online payday lender. As part of his job, he handles stock options, pricing models, and risk management tools — tasks that he said are not that different from playing a chess game.
“Playing chess helped me refine skills like foresight and caution: the same skills that I now use when I’m analyzing data or evaluating important decisions,” he said.
Sharpening your mind
Over the years, numerous experimental studies have identified a correlation between playing chess and enhanced intellectual development in children. A study by Dr. Peter Dauvergne of the University of Sydney in Australia shows that chess can raise intelligence quotient scores, strengthen problem-solving skills, foster critical thinking and enhance memory.
The intellectual benefits of playing the game have led many countries, local governments, and schools across the world to expand their chess programs or introduce mandatory chess courses into their academic curriculum.
In Armenia, every child older than 6 has to take chess lessons as part of their primary school requirements.
In the United States, organizations like Chess-In-The-Schools and America’s Foundation For Chess have partnered with school districts to bring chess into classrooms.
America’s Foundation for Chess delivers an in-classroom chess video program to schools in more than 24 states, including 27 public elementary schools in Detroit.
“Schools are seeing the positive benefits not just academically, but also socially,” executive director Wendi Fisher said. “Chess engages the kids and levels the playing field: it really becomes their favorite hour of the week.”
No school in the Toledo area offers mandatory chess classes as part of their curriculum; however, chess clubs and after-school programs have mushroomed over the years — a local phenomenon that Mr. Brewer has been actively pursuing and promoting.
In 1996 he founded the first chess club at Fort Meigs Elementary School for students of grade two through five. The club — which was affiliated with the Coffee House Chess League — used to meet twice a month for one-hour sessions in which Mr. Brewer would teach crowds of dozens of kids the rules of the game and the best strategies to checkmate the enemy king.
The experiment proved more successful than expected: parents and principals from other area schools reached out to “Bill, the Chess Guy” and before he knew it Mr. Brewer was overseeing a network of six school chess clubs spread across Perrysburg and Maumee.
Mr. Brewer no longer coordinates the extracurricular chess programs at the six elementary schools. Around 2005, he decided to take time off from chess education to embark on a new endeavor: for years, he has been devoting his time to writing a collection of chess-themed short stories to promote the game among young kids.
The chess clubs in Perrysburg and Maumee are still active, attracting as many as 100 students per session, according to local school officials. And many more chess clubs have been founded around Toledo and Sylvania — both for elementary and high school students, and even for kindergarten-age toddlers.
“When I was in school, chess was more an exception than a rule,” recalled Mr. Failor, who was an active member of the Coffee House Chess League through the early 2000s.
“It’s good to see so many schools in the area have chess clubs now, and that’s largely because of Bill Brewer,” he added.
Among the members of the Coffee House Chess League, Tom Bush has gained a reputation of a real Daredevil of Chess — and not just because of the audacity with which he masters the chessboard.
Just like the red-costumed superhero in the Marvel Comics books, the 27-year-old West Toledo resident is blind.
But while Daredevil uses his powers to save the world, Mr. Bush leads troops of pawns, bishops and rooks across a battlefield of black and white squares.
Mr. Bush was still sighted when he first started playing at the Coffee House Chess League in 1994. Years later he started to gradually lose his vision from a retinal degenerative condition called ‘retinitis pigmentosa,’ a rare hereditary condition that left him completely blind by the age of 22.
But Mr. Bush didn’t yield to the obstacles of his condition and continued to play chess: he bought a special chessboard for blind people — with raised black squares — and taught himself to recognize the game pieces by touch.
“I can’t really go outside and throw a football around anymore,” Bush said. “But playing chess is something a blind person can do.”
The game has helped him enhance his decision-making skills and strengthen his memory — skills that have been essential as he adapted to his new life.
Today, Mr. Bush is the number one player at the Coffee House Chess League, where he spends about six hours per week playing the game, and he teaches an online chess course at Tiffin University.
“People that see Tom play don’t believe me when I tell them he’s blind,” Mr. Brewer said.
In the past few months, the two chess enthusiasts have embarked on a new mission: Mr. Bush has been training himself to play chess without feeling out the pieces or groping the chessboard. As he listens to Mr. Brewer call the move, he visualizes the pieces slide down the black and white squares, keeping track of the game in his head.
“It’s exhausting: after 30 moves, you’re ready for a nap,” Mr. Bush joked.
But for Mr. Brewer, his friend’s accomplishment is no joke. It’s the living proof of the miraculous benefits of playing chess from an early age.