Of the numerous championship events sanctioned by the nonprofit, 84,000-member, Crossville-based United States Chess Federation—the game’s official governing body—none are more myth-busting than the National Elementary Championship. Held last month at the Gaylord Opryland complex in Nashville, the event features hundreds of four-, five- and six-year-old players huddled together in a single location brooding silently over their next move for hours at a time.
“It really shows the power that chess has,” says Federation president Bill Hall, a native Crossvillian and three-time state chess champion himself. “We’ve had child psychologists walk in the room and say, ‘This is not possible.’”
Studies prove chess can significantly improve student achievement and behavior. Not surprisingly, the Federation is heavily focused on scholastic outreach. What would help, Hall admits, is an image makeover to improve the game’s appeal in the eyes of more students. Perhaps the arrival of another Bobby Fisher-type on the scene would help. Or chess’ equivalent of a Tiger Woods.
“Chess in general has an image problem of being a community comprised of geeks and nerds,” Hall says. “We’re trying to tackle that head-on.”
The Federation’s Chess Life magazine, chock-full of cool-looking, sunglass-wearing kid chess champions, serves as a testament to that effort.
With its staff of about 30 employees and a $3.2 million budget, the Federation is hardly capable of Herculean efforts in promoting the game. Instead, it focuses on core functions of hosting annual tournaments, sanctioning the recognized player rating system in America and, as Hall describes, “facilitating the spread of the grassroots effort.”
Just how did the national chess headquarters wind up relocating to Crossville in February of 2005? Facing financial difficulties, the once New York-based Federation selected Crossville from about 40 suitors on the strength of its offer of a quarter-million-dollar property, and free room and board to employees during headquarters construction. Predictably, hurt feelings stemming from the site-selection process and the Federation’s inability to achieve financial savings following the move at least in part explain what Hall refers to as the Federation’s recent “tumultuous history leading to the present day.” Hall’s hiring two years ago made him the Federation’s ninth leader in 10 years.