Rockefeller Hall cannot be more familiar to a Vassar student. Classes meet here. Student organizations hold activities here. Special lectures take place in the spacious rooms here. But perhaps few know that it is also the home base for many of the best chess players in the Mid-Hudson Valley.
Every Monday evening, Rocky 104 turns from a regular seminar room to the battlefield of members of the Vassar-Chadwick Chess Club. During a recent double-robin tournament, eight participants took turns to play against each other. They had five minutes to outplay their opponents, or lose. The room was bright and quiet. Tensions were mounting. The only sound was that of pieces moving on the board and hands hitting the timer.
In addition to robin tournaments, the club also offers nationally rated tournaments, team chess, as well as free lessons for youngsters up through college graduates. It also invites prestigious guest speakers and holds simultaneous chess exhibitions with grandmaster or international master level players. From photos documenting the club history, internationally renowned players such as former World Champion Boris Spassky and former Russia and U.S. Champion Roman Dzindichasvilli have visited the club and played in Rocky.
Members of the club come from all areas of the Dutchess County, Orange, Ulster and Putnam, and include players from nearly all ages and all walks of life.
In the 1930s, the club was founded and named after Stanley Chadwick. Fisher recounted, “Stanley started it in his basement. He kept inviting the best players in Poughkeepsie to join them. Over time the club grew significantly and needed more room for their activities.” And this is how Vassar became involved in the club’s weekly meetings.
Fisher continued, “Betty Daniels [a college historian and a long-time member of the English Department at Vassar] was our savior. Betty invited the club to play in Vassar College’s Rockefeller Hall in the late 1960s. We changed the name of the club to Vassar-Chadwick Chess Club in recognition of this most generous action.”
When Vassar started the Powerhouse Training Program and found other uses for the Rocky room in the summers, Fisher connected with Marist College and moved the summer meetings to the Lowell Thomas Building.
Recounting his experiences at the Cardwick club, Fisher said: “I didn’t join the club until 1973 but I have played continuously ever since. I was president from 1973 until 1993 and again in 2015. “
Despite being a later comer in Fisher’s words, the club has given him a high level of recognition and appreciation. “Craig Fisher is the cornerstone of the Vassar-Chadwick Chess Club. No other individual–indeed, no other combination of individuals–has done as much for chess in the Mid-Hudson Valley in general and for the Vassar-Chadwick Chess Club as Craig.”
Brooks is a young man in his 30’s. As the club’s president, he is responsible for arranging for the space and letting people know of each week’s plans. He also works with other staff members to direct tournaments and coalesce schedules. “We need to make sure that there is a variety of forms and kinds. We are running a free tournament next week, and that’s something we’ve never done before.”
For him, the planning, positioning, thinking and strategizing involved in playing chess is the most enjoyable. “It’s a mental game. It’s a mental challenge. And it does help keep your mind very very fresh,” said Brooks.
As Brooks was explaining the photographs and club ratings, Ernest Johnson arrived in the room and introduced himself. Clearly passionate and enthusiastic about the game and the club, Johnson serves as the secretary of the club and has won seven club champion titles since joining the club in 1989.
Looking back at how he started playing, Johnson said, “I was probably eight years old when I first learned. And I played in primary school and junior high. Every place I went had a chess club. So I just kept playing.”
Sitting next to Johnson was Trevor Brook. “Our chess prodigy,” as Fisher, his teacher here, describes him. “My dad first taught me [chess], but most of my study happens online; there are a lot of great resources like the chess.com. The tournament play is a recent occurrence for me. I’ve been playing chess here for about six months. [Playing chess] is really about the extended process of years and years of practicing.”
And Brooks has never minded going up against people much older than him. “These are the greatest players in the area. If you were someone like me, you would want to compete against the best. That’s why I came here.”
He continued, “As long as I can beat them in chess, it works. I think chess breaks boundaries in a way. I don’t feel any different … Chess unites everyone.”