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Custodian Chess Coach Leads Students to Victory

Custodian Chess Coach Leads Students to Victory

In 2013, David Bishop was hired to be the custodian at Reeds Brook Middle School in Hampden, Maine. When he started, school officials told him that it was his job to make that school shine. Little did anyone know how seriously he would take that task, as well as how many ways he would accomplish his mission.

Serendipity makes a play

As a 10-year-old, Bishop learned to play chess. Like many enthusiasts from that era, he became enthralled with the game by watching Bobby Fischer play Boris Spassky in the World Championship in 1972. However, life gave way to other things and he stopped playing.

In 2016, Bishop was cleaning the hallway outside a meeting of the Reeds Brook Chess Club. It wasn’t long before his childhood passion called and he walked into the room.

“When I first walked through that door and saw those kids playing that game, something inside me rang, and I knew I needed to be part of it,” Bishop recalled. “They were just playing casual games, but you could see how much they were enjoying themselves. I asked the club advisor if I could help. She didn’t know how to play the game, so she was happy to have me there.”

Bishop soon became more than a fixture at the meetings, playing with the kids and teaching them the finer points of the game. “I wanted to be more than just a Mr. Shaibel,” he said, in reference
to the custodian/mentor in the Netflix miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit.

Transitioning from player to teacher

Soon, Bishop found himself scouring the internet, bookstores, and game shops for anything and everything he could find about not only playing chess, but how to teach it as well.

“I really enjoyed playing the game again, but it wasn’t long before I realized that I wasn’t just playing, I was teaching too,” he said. “I knew that if I was going to do this, I needed to learn everything I could about teaching chess. After all, anything worth doing is worth doing right.”

At the start of the 2017–18 season, Bishop’s custodial responsibilities switched from the middle school to Weatherbee Elementary School, serving Hampden students from third to fifth grade, where he started a chess club and team. By the time the 2019-20 season started, Bishop had added nearby Earl C. McGraw Elementary School, which serves up to second grade, to his coaching chores.

That season, the Weatherbee team tied for first in its section of the March 2020 Maine State Team Chess Championships, making it eligible for the national competition in Nashville, Tennessee.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented that tournament from taking place.

“After the Weatherbee team won the 2020 states, everyone took notice,” Bishop said proudly. “It also caused an increase in awareness of the team among the schools, as well as the community.”

“As soon as our kids started playing in tournaments, they began playing with an entirely new level of passion for the game,” Bishop continued. “At that point you could see the passion—the fire—in their eyes as they played.”

Preparation produces winners

After the kids started playing in tournaments, something else happened—something Bishop had not anticipated: They started beating him. “I must admit that when that started, it stung a little,” he recalled. “Then it dawned on me that [it] meant their play was getting better, in large part because of my teaching. That made me feel better; in fact, it thrilled me. It also drove me to improve my game, as well as how I taught the subject. I just love watching those kids play, especially when that moment comes when they know what they need to do to win.”

Winners produce more winners, which is precisely what happened to Bishop’s teams. Soon, members that formerly numbered in the 20s quickly grew to the 40s and more.

“I think the thing that really surprises me is the passion these kids show for the game,” Bishop said. “Even when I was a kid, I don’t think I had the passion that these kids show for their play. I
think that’s great, and I often tell them when they ask how they can improve, they need to love the game. It leads to anyone playing and studying the game more, which leads to getting better at it.
That old saying that 90% of success is just showing up really is true. My kids have proved it.”

According to Bishop, he and his players put in more than 300 hours each season, between practice sessions and tournaments.

“Each tournament we attend typically takes 12 to 16 hours, travel time included,” Bishop explained. “That’s not what is important though. It’s encouraging the kids to love chess, just to love it, [so they’re] going to be better than any top player because [they’ll] keep showing up and working at it.”

Bishop’s love of the game is obvious. He calls it a labor of love and volunteers to coach both teams without pay. Both clubs have done so well, each took the championships in the Maine Scholastic
Tournaments in March. One player, Avery Zhang, was named Maine Scholastic Individual Chess Champion for grades K through 5.

After the state tournaments, both of Bishop’s teams played in the national tournaments. The 14 players in the Reeds Brook team competed at the National Middle School Chess Championships
in Round Rock, Texas, placing eighth out of 52 teams in the U700 section. Team member Riley Richardson placed 14th out of 346 competitors. The 10 players on the Weatherbee team placed 14th
out of 53 teams at the National Elementary School Chess Championships (U900 section) in Baltimore.

It’s more than just a game

Bishop is working with the school district’s athletic department to provide buses for transportation next tournament season. He admits he is frustrated at what he perceives as a lack of support from the school board regarding funding and other services for the clubs.

“It’s just a chess club, right? What’s important to know is that although, yes, it’s just a game, studies have shown that kids who play chess end up doing better in math and science subjects in school,” Bishop said. “I think that should be enough incentive to want educators to get on board with chess.”

As Bishop works to garner more support for his teams, he reflects on the turn his life has taken since he first decided to enter the room where the chess club was playing. “I think most people make the mistake of defining themselves by their job descriptions,” he said. “That’s wrong. And when you keep an open mind, you learn that there are opportunities out there that aren’t included in a job description that can make working and living such a rich experience.”

Michael W. Michelsen Jr.

Freelance Writer

Michael W. Michelsen Jr. is a freelance writer who lives in Riverside, California. He specializes in writing business and technology subjects.

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