By John Rice
Chess has been a passion for me since I learned the game as a kid. But as an adult, it's difficult to find a game. So, I was pleased to learn the library has a summer chess program for kids. It's led by Mike Steger every Wednesday. The night I went there were five players, ranging in age from 8 to 12. I thought they'd be easy pickings but they played better than expected.
I had 10-year-old Aiden on the ropes, I thought, until he suddenly checkmated me. I then played his 12-year-old sister, Bella. It was her first-ever chess game but she quickly learned how to move the pieces. Too quickly. We both lost our queens early and settled for a draw. I finally played Mike. I again lost my queen right away and resigned.
Thus humbled, I marveled at how Mike runs the program. He monitors multiple games to point out errors and give tips. He is very patient and upbeat. He also promotes sportsmanship, having opponents shake hands before every game.
Unlike his players at the library, Mike discovered chess later in life. As a teacher at Naperville Central High School, Mike was suddenly recruited to be the coach of the chess team. Mike wasn't a chess player but wandered into the library to watch a match. Despite his inexperience, Mike became a successful coach, with his team placing near the top in the Illinois state finals, the biggest high school tournament in the country.
It's a challenge harnessing the logic of the eight-member squad. The players have advanced IQ's and tend to question everything. Mike doesn't teach them strategy, as much as he cheers them on. They can get easily discouraged or, worse, get down on a teammate. His team continues to get stronger, with a highly-rated freshman coming in the fall.
Mike said there isn't much socializing in competitive chess but the leisure chess they play at the library allows for plenty of conversation. Mike teaches them how to set up the board, how the pieces move and the basic principles of chess. Then he moves onto strategy.
Learning chess can be beneficial to kids, improving their learning, foresight, discipline and self-confidence. They memorize openings and learn basic problem-solving. Based on the laughs and excited voices at the library, they also have fun. The library supplies the chess sets and paid Mike a modest stipend but he's definitely not doing it for the money.
Teaching the game gets him ready to face his next chess season at the high school. It begins in October with a 26-team tournament that takes ten hours. It ends in February, with the IHSA tournament in Peoria. This is high-level chess but pales compared to the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen. The 26-year-old can defeat 10 grandmasters at the same time with his back to the chessboards.
Mike greatly admires Carlsen but isn't trying to train grandmasters at the library. He takes an easy going approach, occasionally asking players to put down their phones, or the snack that's distracting them. One of the beneficiaries of his gentle guidance is his eight-year-old daughter, Hillary. If I compete there again, I'll play Hillary — but only after I hand her a phone and a snack.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.