Chehalis High School’s Nonexistent Chess Team

The first things one invariably notices upon entering the Washington State Chess Tournament are the sweatshirts. Students all wear near-identical hoodies adorned with embroidered bright lettering and the mandatory chess piece. Huddling, the little swaying patches of color sew themselves together, blanketing the room in the most niche quilt some will ever see, leaving Tatler writers who didn’t get the uniform memo a bare thread near the seams.

Sports as they define it right now doesn’t include chess.

— Charity Layton, a Chehalis parent

That is, until a similarly un-uniformed group claims a nearby table. They go through the motions just like the other teams: set up a portable chess board, nominate two players to warm up, and scout the competition. Despite their undeniable comfort in what they do, this chess program — Chehalis High School’s — didn’t even exist a week ago. In fact, it still doesn’t. 

“It’s a sports place and school, for sure. But ‘sports’ as they define it right now doesn’t include chess,” says Charity Layton, the mother of one of the members of Chehalis’ chess team. A public high school teacher in the adjacent town of Toledo, she describes the environment around chess in her native Chehalis. “You know, we’re not a big town, and [my son] isn’t in a big school,” she remarks, “so that also contributes to limited interest in chess. I bet if the town were bigger, we’d get more people involved.” 

Ninety minutes south of Lakeside, Chehalis boasts just over 7,600 residents in an area of just under six square miles. The result, Layton explains, is a sense of isolation among Chehalis chess players like her son: “He has Scouts, so he has friends through that, but he’s spent many lunches alone playing chess against himself.”

I don’t even know where I’d go in Chehalis to buy an outfit like that.

— A Chehalis player

It wouldn’t be until a regionals tournament last February that the Chehalis team’s disparate members would (serendipitously) find each other. A newly-created event, the regionals tournament marked a novel deviation from the Washington High School Chess Association’s (WHSCA) usual circuit, which otherwise hosts six leagues that send their top schools to the championship. However, these leagues often engender urban favoritism: “It’s no secret that the majority of the leagues tend to be based around cities,” says WHSCA President Randy Kaech. “As someone who grew up playing chess in a small, rural Washington town, I felt bad for the countless kids and schools who didn’t have an opportunity to get involved with the game at this level.” Looking around at Stanwood, the issue was evident. Beyond one or two smaller or rural institutions, there wasn’t a single school not associated with a major city. 

Thus, the WHSCA introduced the regional tournament this year to reduce rural schools’ barriers to entry. The tournament was open to any school that wanted to compete, regardless of their team’s ranking. With a chuckle, Layton recalls, “That’s when the emails with other parents really began!” 

Five Chehalis students would sign up for the tournament as possible independent players and were grouped together into one team. Almost immediately, Charity Layton volunteered herself to coordinate the group of chess-loving strangers. She sent emails out to parents, signed brochures, and encouraged the children to meet. At regionals, the team performed well; they took second place behind Olympia, qualifying them for the state championship. 

Then came the funding issues. Though the team had won silver at regionals, there was only a week and a half left between regionals and the final state tournament for the hastily-formed group. “Give me whatever and I’ll do it,” Layton recalls exclaiming one night, frustrated with how little had been done to get these kids into the tournament. “Now I’m somehow the organizer of it all while they coach themselves.” 

The athletics department at Chehalis doesn’t recognize chess as a sport, so they denied multiple requests for the team’s funding. Tasked with finding sufficient capital to support hotel rooms, food, and transportation for the team of five players plus additional adults, Layton turned to her community and even local online forums.

Layton eventually found a local anonymous donor who covered the expenses of the trip. Meanwhile, the team agreed to stay in the house of a teacher’s acquaintance while they were in Stanwood. “It was the product of a lot of behind-the-scenes work and communication, so it’s nice to be here,” Layton reflected. “If anything, I just hope that they have fun, do well, and learn a lot from what’s hopefully the first of many chess tournaments.”

On an overcast Saturday morning, the team files into their third match of the tournament, a showdown which could define their success at the event. The match is against Olympia — a team they narrowly lost to in regionals — and the Chehalis team is outmatched. Lined up in suits and ties, the Olympia team assumes a fast pace of play. Like so many others there, they favor the psychological aspect of the game: they play then stand up, walking around indifferently in an attempt to compromise their opponents’ self-esteem. 

The strategy works: the fifth Chehalis player concedes his loss a mere 16 minutes after play begins. His opponent subtly grins and checks his watch while the Chehalis player begrudgingly helps clean the board. The same happens with boards four and three. Despite the similarities in how each team arrived at the championship, their differences are obvious. One can see the hundreds of openings the Olympia team has been taught resting behind their gelled hair and feel the echoing clack of their oxfords as they navigate the hall. 

Conversely, the Chehalis team had only practiced together once, on the Tuesday before the tournament. None of them had a coach or had played against anyone other than family and obliging friends. Turning to me, one of the Chehalis players comments on the Olympia team’s outfits: “I don’t even know where I’d go in Chehalis to buy an outfit like that.”

In a welcome turn of events, the second Chehalis player wins his bout. Now, all eyes remain on the top table, where Viviana, a Chehalis senior, is playing. She slowly rattles the keychains on her backpack. After ten minutes of consideration, Viviana’s opponent flakes and forces her into a draw by playing the same position three times. “It wasn’t the optimal outcome,” she says with a sigh, “but at least it’s a half-point instead of nothing.” 

Like many, if not all, on the Chehalis team, Viviana didn’t have a traditional start to chess. She’s never had a private lesson, never played in a tournament before regionals, and never been on a chess team before. Instead, Viviana’s journey with the game begins with the two years she spent living with her family in Guadalajara, Mexico. After learning chess with her dad, she began frequenting an international chess hall that doubled as a café: “Every Saturday night, you could pay a small fee to go and play as many games as you wanted. There’d be people from all over the world, so you learn a lot!” Viviana attributes the diversity in her play style to the range of styles she saw in the hall. “For example,” she says, “in the U. S., it’s all about theory. How are you opening? What are the implications? When you play in Mexico, it’s not like that; it’s more the actual game.” 

After moving back to the U. S. two years ago, she lost her international café but found friends through Running Start, a dual credit enrollment program, to play online chess with her. It was through them that she’d discover the regionals tournament, where she met the other members of the Chehalis team: “I was really happy to meet them and to be a part of a growing community in Chehalis. Everyone has taken everyone in, despite how rushed it was to organize this.” 

Viviana hasn’t simply been taken in by the team; she has been declared their leader. Whenever I spoke to a member of the team after a match they lost, they’d always reassure me, “Don’t worry. Viviana will bring it home for us.”

If I start beating them, then they see it as an affront to their manhood, so they get defensive and hasty. Either way, my opponents aren’t the main reasons for my stress during games

— Vivian

With her new position at the head of the team, Viviana does feel a pressure to do well, she says. “It’s something I’ve never had before in my game, so I’m just not used to it yet. I just try and space out or drink coffee; that usually puts it to bed.” While she feels the expectations of her own teammates, Viviana doesn’t get intimidated by her opponents: “If anything, I think my opponents underestimate me because I’m a girl, even though I’m sitting at the top table. But what I’ve found is if I start beating them, then they see it as an affront to their manhood, so they get defensive and hasty. Either way, my opponents aren’t the main reasons for my stress during games.”

For now, though, they remain a determined bunch of five on a small-town chess team.

At the end of the tournament, Chehalis placed near the bottom. However, parents and students alike remain optimistic for the future. “It marks a new era for us,” said parent-organizer Charity Layton when asked about the significance of the tournament. “It’s the first time Chehalis’ chess players have really been able to step out and show their talents like this, and I’m excited for a future that’s filled with more tournaments.” The students echoed Layton’s perspective, adding that they hope to now convince the athletics department to recognize and fund a formal school chess program. For now, though, they remain a determined bunch of five on a small-town chess team.