January 14, 2001
Charlotte Observer, Mecklenburg Neighbors Section

Staff Writer

Jill Bambara and her friends don’t mind giving up a few dollars each week when they visit Wendy’s. They just don’t want to part with their bishops, or pawns – or, for heaven’s sake, a king or queen.
Yes, you’ll find more than a Frosty or a Biggie Fries at the Wendy’s on South Independence Boulevard, across from Midtown Square, each Wednesday evening. You’ll also have a chance to meet some of the best chess players in the Southeast. They’re members of the Charlotte Chess Club, which bills itself as one of the best in the region. And in the seemingly incongruent setting of a fast-food restaurant, they gather for several hours, one night a week, to play one of the world’s most challenging games.

"Why here? Why not?" says said Leland Fuerstman, president of the Charlotte Chess Club.

"There’s excellent parking, good lighting, and we pretty much have the place to ourselves," he said. "And besides, by now, most people know we’re here."

On an average evening, about 30 chess players arrive for a bite to eat, a chance to trade conversation with fellow chess-lovers, and then a match against a player of their own skill level.

And don’t expect to find 30 men, each wearing glasses and pocket protectors.

"You’ll find all kinds of people here," said Jill Bambara, another of the regulars and the club’s director of youth activities. Bambara is the link between the Charlotte Chess Club and the growing number of clubs at more than 60 schools in the Charlotte area.

"More than half the schools are sponsoring programs," she said. "They’ve found that it helps a lot with students’ critical-thinking skills."

More than 1,600 players visited Charlotte last spring for the national high school championships. The student state championships this year will be at West Charlotte High School in early March.

The crowd on a recent Wednesday included Marvin Williams, 44, an electrician from Rock Hill. He was visiting for the first time, after learning about the club’s weekly meetings at a recent tournament. Also competing was Spencer Singleton, 42, who teaches social studies at Cochrane Middle School and leads the 28-member student club there.

The club’s top youth player, Justin Daniel, 16, a Harding High student, was playing. So was David Roman, a leader in the Charlotte Hispanic community.

"We come from all walks of life – attorneys, preachers, teachers," Fuerstman said. "We’re open to all."

Members began arriving shortly after 6:30 p.m. – about an hour before the scheduled start of activities. Regular diners also were coming and going, but by 7:10 p.m., several tables were filled with portable chessboards (made of canvas). A young family of diners – non-chess players – watched with curiosity as more and more tables filled with the chessboards and pieces.

By 7:30 p.m., when Fuerstman made his announcements and divided players into twosomes, the other diners were quiet. "The people who aren’t chess players are always good to us," Fuerstman said.

The games have time limits, as each player has one hour to make 30 moves. They time themselves with clocks, but a few matches invariably end quickly.

Frank Newton, a Charlotte Chess Club member and one of several to reach the National Master level, quickly disposed of his opponent.

In some other matches, players got up and walked around the restaurant after making a move – allowing their opponents to ponder their next moves.

At other tables, neither player budged.

"The ones who walk around say it helps them think better," Bambara said.

"Everyone has a different style," said Singleton, the Cochrane Middle teacher, and one of those who walks between moves.  He said chess is an outstanding game for youths.

"I got the fever in 1972, when I saw Bobby Fischer win the world championship," he said. "The kids find it to be fun. They enjoy the challenge."

His Cochrane Middle team won the 1999 middle school state championship and placed eighth of 65 teams at a national event in May in Arizona.

Fuerstman said all chess players, even neophytes, are welcome at the Wednesday gatherings.
"We want people to come back, so we’ll make sure you are paired against someone of your own level," he said.  "Besides," he added, "where else can you play a game of chess and get yourself a burger or fries if you get hungry?"