Days and Knights

The unnamed chess club’s motto is “win with grace, lose with dignity,” and instructor Robert Gumerlock hopes to teach participants not only chess skills, but how to be courteous to their opponents, both in the game and in life.

Francisco Luevano keeps his gaze focused downward at the chess boards of his five competitors, who are seated in an L formation. He’s playing simultaneous games, or simul, requiring quick thinking. Luevano, 13, needs to win at least three of five games to get his name onto the club’s Plaque of Grandmasters. He has only a few seconds to come up with some of his moves, while his opponents have the time it takes him to move through all of the games.

Instructor Robert Gumerlock says it requires planning, concentration and quick thinking. After 45 minutes of intense playing, Luevano wins three games, earning his spot on the plaque.

Gumerlock started teaching chess to kids in the Seaside Boys and Girls Clubs of Monterey County about 10 years ago. At first, he wanted to be a math tutor. He soon realized the last thing kids wanted to do after a long school day was work on school subjects.

But a dusty chess set on the shelf caught the kids’ interest. “I was delighted to see that, because I thought they’re all consumed by video games now,” Gumerlock says. Second – and third-graders started to pick up the game, and as they moved through middle school and into high school, he continued to be their coach.

Gumerlock’s goal is to follow in the footsteps of Ted Yudacufskia dart and chess instructor for over 40 years at Monterey Chess and Dart Center that was on Alvarado Street. “My job is to get the next crop of students so they are good enough to play with the students of Ted’s from way back,” he says.

He started offering chess programs at Seaside Middle School and Monterey Bay Charter School.

When schools closed due to Covid-19, he settled on Saturday afternoons for outdoor play. First, they met at outdoor tables at Counterpoint Coffee on Broadway in Seaside; owner Max Georis had once been Yudacufski’s student. When sit-down dining was restricted, the club moved to the benches near the intersection of Broadway and Hillsdale Street. There are now nine regular members. The club doesn’t have a name yet, but they are looking for one.

Angel Barraza, a 15-year-old sophomore at Monterey High, started playing chess five years ago with Gumerlock at the Boys and Girls Club. “I like the energy it gives me,” he says.

Barraza says it’s refreshing to come and play chess on Saturday after a week of school and homework, and that it helps him with everyday decision-making, “telling which decisions are higher priority and knocking them off the list.”

Students also practice puzzles, including from the weekend edition of the Financial Times. They do blitz tournaments, where each opponent has three minutes on the clock per game, and pieces are literally flying off the board.

The members’ “bible” is the book A World Champion’s Guide to Chess: Winning Chess the Polgar Way by Susan Polgar, the first woman to become a grandmaster in chess. Polgar had an exhibition in Santa Clara in 2019, and three of Gumerlock’s players attended and played against her. (They all lost, but got their books autographed.)

As in the popular Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, chess is dominated by men. Gumerlock says he hasn’t found a formula to keep female players: “The saddest thing is when I have a strong female player who then loses interest in the game,” he says. (This is also the reason he chose Polgar as the club’s “patron saint,” to show girls they could become grandmasters.)

Gender imbalance aside, 14-year-old Samantha Ortiz-Naranjo was the winner of the 2019 championship. She started playing at the Boys and Girls Club when she was in fifth grade, and her brother Diego is also in the club. “We like challenging each other,” she says.

For a while, Ortiz-Naranjo was the only girl on the team; another joined recently. But Ortiz-Naranjo says it doesn’t make a difference for her: “I’m just here to play the game.”

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