How to Win (And Why Some Can’t)

The Washington State Chess Championships began on March 3, but for many, chess is a competition that has spanned their entire life. 

Chess, as it is explained to me in the confines of the bus on the way to Stanwood, is purely a game of practice. It is based on the idea that the more hours of playing you accumulate, the more plays and sequences you’ll see and the better you will become. Many chess players, therefore, begin to accumulate these hours at a very young age.

“Do you see that kid I just met?” says a voice belonging to a silhouette in a dark blue suit and tie as he strides over to our table. The voice, as I would later learn, belonged to Jack, a sophomore from another school. He points to a head across the Stanwood High School cafeteria, which I try my best to follow. “He says he’s been a grandmaster since fifth grade.”

Do you see that kid I just met? … He says he’s been a grandmaster since fifth grade.

— Jack

But there is no time to fully comprehend this new piece of information; an announcer’s voice lets the cafeteria know they can head upstairs, and with that, the very first round of the Washington State Chess Championships has begun. 


I would later meet Jaden, a sophomore from Chehalis School, located in rural Washington, and a fellow photographer who taught me how to adjust the shutter speed on the Tatler camera that hung around my neck. We would meet again after the first two rounds, and it was then that I took the opportunity to ask how his games went. Having very limited knowledge about how chess works besides information I’ve picked up from the Netflix hit special “Queen’s Gambit,” I have no way of knowing how games are going simply from watching.

Jaden doesn’t respond confidently. “Not well — I lost this [round], and I’m looking forward to losing the next,” he tells me as we walk the three flights back to the cafeteria. Although Jaden started playing in third grade, he had been on a hiatus until ninth grade, when he picked up online chess. Chehalis School doesn’t have an official chess team; students from his school started a league and met once on the Tuesday before to prepare for the tournament. Instead of a chess trainer or an advisor, one of the student’s parents volunteered to organize the two-day trip. Besides that, the students are completely on their own.

Chess is very much ‘pay to win’.

— Daniel W. ’25

Jaden’s background in chess quickly appears to be similar to many other players, which makes sense: in recent years, chess has seen a significant uptick in popularity, which can be attributed to online chess platforms such as “Most people in the league don’t have formal training,” Jaden observes between bites of his McChicken. 

But Troy M. ’23, a member of the Lakeside chess team, also recognizes that many players have had private training as well. Troy, who learned chess from his grandparents and began playing online chess during the pandemic, observed that his background was a bit different from the other players. “Yeah, these guys have all been playing for a really long time,” he tells me after his first round, referring to both other competitors and members of the Lakeside chess team. 

Washington State Chess Association director Randy Koch believes that the emergence of online chess has had a more profound impact than others may recognize. Having grown up in rural eastern Washington, he recalls a time where he had to actively search around his hometown to find opportunities to practice chess — a time where online chess resources didn’t exist because, well, the internet didn’t exist. 

“Now the whole landscape of chess has changed,” Koch says. “Chess is booming.” 

Koch argues that instead, the main barrier to accessible chess is not discrepancies in training, but transportation to competitions. While transportation does pose a significant problem for schools further away from the Seattle area, players like Jaden and Daniel disagree; the training of their school’s club matters more. 

“It helps,” Jaden tells me. “It helps that a school has funding. It helps that a school has a coach.” 

In an interview after the tournament, Daniel W. ’25 was able to explain some more of the intricacies behind the game. “Chess is very much ‘pay to win,’” he says. 

As a member of the chess team who participated in the state championships, Daniel’s background is similar to many great chess players: he learned how to play chess at age five and has been practicing since. Needless to say, he’s been around. “You can have a lot of talent,” he notes, “but you also [always] need more.” He explains that players need strong coaches at their schools as well as for individual lessons; even buying a premium membership on — which gives you more opportunities to play games and chess puzzles — doesn’t hurt. But besides the board and pieces, how much does it really cost to play chess? 

“Well, for one, entry fees are a lot,” Daniel continues, mentioning that he once paid up to $200 for just his entrance in a chess competition. 

This seemed to be the consensus among players at the tournament — that chess is unseemingly a costly game. When I began to ask around the cafeteria about the cost of training, I received a variety of responses, ranging from $50 to $100 per hour; one interviewee, who wished to remain anonymous, smiled and told me, “You don’t want to know.”

Instead of a chess trainer or an advisor, one of the student’s parents volunteered to organize the two-day trip. Besides that, the [Chehalis] students are completely on their own.

For the high school students scattered around Washington, play is not quite at a level where private and professional training is the determining factor between victory or defeat. 

“The difference is very small up to a certain level,” Koch says. Jack places that level at around 1600; under that, there “aren’t real effects” that emerge from the difference. Daniel notes that around 1600 is when “you can tell a player is serious about chess… where they begin to understand long-term strategy.” To put the Washington State Chess Championship into context, Jack estimates that competitors play chess at around a 1300 level. 

Yes, as Koch noted and as Jack and Jaden evidenced, chess is now more accessible to a broader audience. The combination of a rise in popularity surrounding chess media, such as Netflix’s Queen’s Gambit, and the emergence of online forums like has lent itself to more players playing chess now than ever. But still, for the players who want the “more” that Daniel says is necessary — club funding, private training, tournament memberships — it is not enough.