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Neighbors

Learning to checkmate life’s wrong moves

Chess club returns to Urban Alliance in Kalamazoo's Edison neighborhood for fun and outreach intended to last a lifetime.

They sit across from one another – one a master chess player with decades of experience, the other barely a teenager, new to a game where the future has an infinite amount of possible moves.

Tim McGrew moves his pieces with lightning speed, placing them confidently on the board with a solid thud. Rylan Vandermeer, 13, sways in his chair, contemplating his next move for a few seconds before moving pawns, trying to keep up with McGrew’s speed.

“Slow down, you’re moving faster than your mind is,” McGrew says. “Talk to me. Think out loud.”

In a few moments, the game is over, but not before Vandermeer has learned a few more skills in a game he loves to play, but knows he’s got more to learn about.

“It helps you to create different strategies to beat your opponents,” he says.

The Kalamazoo Premier Chess Club hopes he and other kids in the Edison Neighborhood learn more than that.

Chess players young and old, black and white, gather at Urban Alliance, a non-profit that seeks to empower area residents, in Kalamazoo’s Edison Neighborhood every Tuesday at 6 p.m. for chess and a free meal.

“Chess teaches to move accordingly. From war, to peace, to lifestyle. It can be interpreted and articulated into many things,” says Yafinceio “Big B” Harris, a Connections Coordinator at the Urban Alliance. “One of the goals is to articulate a sense of emotional intelligence for the youth. Learn the game, enjoy the game, and learn the decision making that makes you a winner.”

The club was formed before the pandemic, restarted over the summer, and has just recently ramped-up again.

Some are beginners. Others, like McGrew, are seasoned veterans who feel responsible for imparting their skills to up-and-comers.

“Every move you make you have choices, and choices matter,” says McGrew, a philosophy professor at Western Michigan University and a 2006 Michigan state chess co-champion who has played against several chess grandmasters.

“When you see a kid really concentrating on what they’re doing, that’s a skill that’s transferable to so many other areas of life. Chess is wonderful because it transforms the way you think.”

The club is open to all ages, but is deliberately geared toward helping younger members develop their problem solving and strategic thinking skills, providing them with a safe place to learn from chess mentors.

“The only thing that matters is the quality of your moves,” McGrew says.

Chess is a game that teaches strategic thinking, the need to consider several steps ahead before making a move, and the consequences of a player’s decisions. One poor move can initiate a series of events that can be hard to get out of.

“You make a bad move in chess, you lose,” McGrew says. “You make bad choices in life, things can be a lot worse.”

The city’s Edison neighborhood is one of many throughout the county that have seen gun violence escalate in recent years, and the age range of those involved has trended younger. A chess club is seen as one option to getting involved and teaching skillsets to keep it that way, and organizers hope it can be replicated in the community.

Rod Tucker is the pastor at Trenches Community Church in the neighborhood, and a founding member of the club. Partnering with Urban Alliance was a no-brainer, given the alliance’s mission in the area.

“We wanted to be a good influence in this neighborhood, and with the good work Urban Alliance is doing here, we wanted to be a part of that,” Tucker says. “The club is a spoke in the wheel of how we want to transform the vision of our neighborhood.”