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Checkmate: Normal West Chess Program On The Rise

Normal West students playing chess
Eric Stock
Normal West students (R to L, clockwise) Evan Ericson, Joseph Kessinger, Clayton Davis and Jacob Davis play chess during a recent practice at school.

Normal West has become the latest intercity school to put its chess program on the map.

Three of the top chess programs in Bloomington-Normal all have one thing in common: Garrett Scott helped get them there.
Scott started learning to play chess from his older brother at the ripe age of 4.

“I’d move the pieces around for him, he would regularly checkmate me,” Scott recalled. “I did get some things going in terms of losing probably hundreds of games, but I did learn the moves.”

Chess practice at Normal West High School
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
Normal West chess coach Garrett Scott plays a match against student Luke Merian during a recent practice.

Scott said his brother would let him win occasionally, and by the third grade the younger sibling was good enough to play chess against his peers.

Now seven decades later, Scott has led a third Twin City high school program to success in chess. After earlier stints at Bloomington High School starting in the 1960s and later at University High in Normal, where he led the Pioneers to a state title in 1999 and several other top 10 finishes, he's helped build a chess program from scratch at Normal West.

The Wildcats took 10th place in the Illinois High School Association state finals in Peoria earlier this month. That was West's third straight finish among the best chess squads in Illinois. West also took first at the recent state coaches tournament.

Scott is modest about the program's sudden success.

“I would not call it elite, I would really say we are among the very good and other schools are aware of us,” Scott declared.

Scott shares coaching duties with Vicki Kafer. She handles much of the logistics for the team, scheduling, busing, overseeing practices and the like. 

She convinced Normal West to create the chess program in 2010 when she knew West was about to get several students, including her son, who were interested in the game. Her daughter later played on the team too.

Scott coached them both.

Kafer saw Scott's coaching style firsthand. She said he not only teaches players how to win, he also teaches them how to lose with dignity.

“At the end of the game, there’s always someone heartbroken with the results,” Kafer explained. “He is great at helping them get through that. As a young player, that’s difficult.

“There’s going to be tears, there’s going to be (players) get up and leave. He’s teaching them all the right things about that.”

Sibling Rivalry

When two brothers go head-to-head in a game of chess, one of them is bound to lose.

As Normal West senior Clayton Davis tells it, that meant his younger brother Jacob took his lumps again and again when they were younger, until he got the hang of the game.

“Oh yeah, I always beat him when we were younger,” Clayton Davis recalled. “Then freshman year for me and sixth grade for him, he started getting better. He definitely put in a lot more time than me. You can see the growth that he’d had.”

The Davis brothers are now two of the top players at Normal West. Jacob Davis, now a freshman, said those chess matches when they were little developed his love for the game—and the competition.

“I just think it’s really interesting, it changes all the time, and it’s fun to beat other people,” Jacob Davis said.

But chess is about more than just winning and losing. Coach Scott said the mental gymnastics the game requires can be a vital learning tool. He said the better players tend to be more successful in the real world.

“Evaluation, planning and execution are three elements of critical thinking that are useful in any sort of science and sometime writing also,” Scott said.

Jacob said chess helps him in the classroom, sometimes quite literally.

“Even in school, whenever I feel like I’m not doing so well, I’ll get out my phone and play chess online and I’ll keep playing until I do well and once I do well my mind gets ready and I’m all ready to go,” he said, adding his teachers don’t know that he’s doing that. Not to worry: Jacob is a straight A student taking honors classes.

Normal West senior Joseph Kessinger has been playing chess since kindergarten and now teaches chess at two grade schools. He said chess has helped him in the classroom by demonstrating there are no shortcuts. 

“It’s helped my taking school more seriously, because I understand more so through chess that actions have consequences because in a game if you make a mistake you get punished, immediately,” Kessinger said. “If you don’t do your homework and you grades go down, you can see that.”

Kessinger said in addition to twice-weekly practices, he studies chess 4 to 5 hours a night. He's considering putting off college for a year to pursue a career in chess.

Scott said there will always be kids who want to play chess because of the desire for competition and critical thinking, but he's noticed more students struggle with the pace of the game in this digital age.

“We’ve got several who need to go fast, need to get it done and chess, I believe, is a valuable training device for that to slow down and think about it,” Scott said. “That is not as prevalent today as it was when we went to school.”

The Davis brothers also play school and club soccer where they see parallels to chess. Jacob, for example, is the goalie.

“I am like the chess player to where I organize my team to where we have the best winning chances,” Jacob said. “I tell my defenders where they need to be and how they need to play and so it relates a lot.”

Older brother Clayton sees soccer as a stress release from chess and vice versa.

“One weekend it will be chess, if I have a bad weekend, the next weekend it’s going to be soccer and usually that goes pretty well, and then bad weekend for soccer, then there’s chess,” Clayton Davis said. “It switches back and forth and usually the next week is better than the last week.”

Jacob Davis said he's encouraged several of his soccer teammates to take up chess, but there's a stigma attached to the game that's too much for some to overcome.

“There are a couple of them (who play chess) but a lot of them just think it’s for nerds, but it’s actually pretty cool,” Jacob said.

Kessinger and junior Evan Ericson were Normal West's top players at the state chess finals. They both finished with 6 of a possible 7 points. Jacob Davis won five of seven matches. Clayton Davis won two out of three matches in the finals.

Bloomington High School finished 54th in the IHSA finals, U-High came in 66th out of the top 124 chess programs in Illinois. Whitney Young of Chicago won the title with a perfect score in seven rounds.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.