By Devin Rose
Players on both sides of the chess boards were left surprised Friday afternoon when members of Whittier School's Starry Knights chess club squared off against residents of the Oak Park Arms retirement community.
The Starry Knights, made up of kindergarten through fifth grade students from Whittier, 715 N. Harvey, practice every Friday. But some of the retirement community residents hadn't played chess in decades, and some were just learning for the first time. Even so, players from both groups had tricks up their sleeves.
"These people are a lot better than I thought they'd be," said Merrick Silvis, 10, when he finished his first match.
Lynn Marti, 87, had a similar opinion. "They're really good," he said, admitting he struggled against one of his opponents. "They surprise you sometimes."
Judy Chrisman, the former librarian at Whittier, came up with the idea to bring the two groups together Friday. Chrisman's father lives at the Oak Park Arms, 408 S. Oak Park Ave., and she knows he and other residents enjoy it when kids come to visit. She said the chess games were an opportunity to get the generations together and help them understand each other.
"I think they have a lot to share," she said.
Wyatt Patterson, a visual arts teacher at Whittier, has been running the club since the late 1990s. He said chess is the kind of game you can go years without playing and then have a "fire lit inside you" that brings out the desire to play. Looking around the room, which fell silent during the first matches, Patterson said his members didn't need him for motivation.
It's exciting to see transformations in the young players, Patterson said, including one player who used to cry every time he'd lose. Now, he's one of the best.
Silvis said he was in first grade when his dad taught him how to play chess, and he enjoys being able to focus his mind on something other than school when he plays. It helps him academically because it's taught him to think of other things in steps, like math problems.
"Most men play chess the way they carry themselves in life," said Johnel Washington, 62, during a match with an opponent in first grade. Some players, like himself, are aggressive, while others can be more coy and observant or afraid. Even though Washington hadn't played in about 10 years, he said it was "just like riding a bike."
Jill Wagner, director of marketing for the Oak Park Arms, said she hoped to eventually organize chess matches with the Starry Knights and other schools' clubs every week.
After a tense match, Ron Vedra, 72, took a long sip from a cup of juice. "We took it down to nothing but pawns and the king," Vedra said of the match, which ended in a stalemate. "I think I'm getting a lot older today after playing this kid."