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Chess at Tech: A Trending Tradition

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CNBC
Chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley (’83)

At Brooklyn Tech, not all students walking through the halls are scrolling through social media. Instead, an increasing number of Technites are found playing online chess. 

Since 2020, the free time that came with the COVID-19 lockdowns led teenagers to explore playing online chess on websites such as lichess.org and Chess.com, moving beyond the physical chess board. Chess.com reported on their blog that, “Traffic has nearly doubled since the beginning of December [2022].” An article by The Hustle titled “The Teen’s Gambit” noted, “The biggest growth [in active chess.com users] came from players ages 13-17.”

Within Tech, numerous spaces and resources allow players to develop their skills and compete across the city, such as the Tech Chess Club and Team. Tech has a long history with chess, even having graduated two chess champions: Maurice Ashley and Rochelle Ballantyne.

The online trend has revived chess’ popularity with Tech students after a pandemic decline. Mr. Richard Lopez, a teacher in the Career and Technical Education (CTE) and Computer Science & Engineering Department, who advises Tech’s Chess Team, recalled that prior to the pandemic, the team had a “steady 30 students.” Yet, a noticeable increase in participation came with the introduction of remote learning. “[During] remote, we had 84 students participating in our games,” Lopez said. “Our first meeting after COVID, we had 64 students.”

Tech students are drawn to chess for several reasons. For Aerospace Engineering major and member of the Chess Team David Savransky (‘25), it’s a welcomed distraction. “Most of my leisure time is actually [spent playing] chess,” he said. “I enjoy it because it’s something to practice and take my mind off things.” For others, it’s the social aspect. “I play chess with my friends and it helps me engage more in the game and actually motivates me to improve,” said Nashwan Nafi (‘26). Asher Shmidov (‘26) similarly reported enjoying the community of online chess, seeing it as “an opportunity to play against [his] friends” and “improve [his] skills.”

Playing on phones may be the latest trend, but chess has long been a part of student life at Tech. Former Electrical Engineering major Maurice Ashley (‘83), is the first black Chess Grandmaster. The title of Chess Grandmaster is earned after a player achieves an Elo rating, a system that calculates a player’s approximate skill level, of at least 2500, as well as receiving favorable results (norms), reaching a high tournament performance level, in at least 27 tournament games. Ashley is also a Tech Hall of Fame inductee. 

Ashley was first introduced to the game in Jamaica 48 years ago and he has continued playing since. “I didn’t really play seriously until I was at Tech,” he said. I came upon a book in the library. I wasn’t even looking for it, but it was clearly looking for me because from that moment on I was obsessed.” When asked what made him fall in love with the game, he said, “It’s been around for 1,500 years in various forms because it’s a fascinating game, it’s the puzzle inside of the mystery, inside of the enigma. You just never solve it.” He recalled receiving his title of Grandmaster as, “one of the happiest moments of [his] life.”

The sudden rise in the popularity of chess can be partially attributed to the release of the 2020 limited series The Queen’s Gambit, a show about an orphaned chess prodigy, struggling with addiction and working to prove her place in the chess world. The series garnered a lot of attention, and in turn, brought a new wave of popularity to chess, and especially online chess.  The popularity is additionally attributed to quarantine, as people were left in their homes due to COVID-19 lockdowns, often with little to do. A Variety article about the show’s effect states, “In the three weeks after The Queen’s Gambit premiered, unit sales of chess sets jumped 87% in the U.S., and chess book sales rose an eye-popping 603%.” 

An increase in chess content on social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube also contributed to the rising popularity of chess. Ashley added, “With the ease of technology being able to stream easily…you have this explosion of players.” Ubiquitous chess influencers like Magnus Carlson, a five-time Chess World Champion and popular chess YouTuber with over a million followers, have helped bring the game, known for its demographic of older players, to younger ones.

Former Law and Society major Rochelle Ballantyne (‘13) is a Tech alumna who is trailblazing a path towards becoming the world’s first black female chess grandmaster. Since graduation, she has not only made strides in chess but began a career in law, receiving her law degree from the New York University Law School last year. Ballantyne has not let her professional ambitions distract her away from a focus on getting young people involved in chess. According to the Tech Alumni Foundation, “Outside law, she’s working with The Gift of Chess to donate 1 million [chess] sets globally by 2030.” She encourages young chess players to “find a balance and not lose sight of why you originally loved the game.”

 

Ballantyne explained that the first time she played chess she believed that she “could win at something,” which is part of why she continued to play. She noted that because Tech didn’t have a chess program at the time, she focused more on college. There weren’t people to coach me through chess as much,” she said. 

Even just 10 years after Ballantyne’s graduation, digital accessibility has increased drastically, enabling young chess players to learn and play chess from anywhere they choose. Although Ashley and Ballantyne had very different chess experiences at Tech, with Ballantyne taking a break in high school while Ashley played more than ever, they both went on to teach and inspire the next generation of chess players. 

When asked about advice he’d give to current students interested in chess, Ashley stated, “Don’t worry about winning and losing. Enjoy the game. If you win, and you’re not having fun, you lose.”

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Bee Bruce, Staff Writer
Bee (she/her) is a Staff Writer. Bee is on The Survey because she loves writing and researching all things Brooklyn Tech, as well as sharing a community with other writers. Bee is interested in journalism because she loves sharing thoughts and ideas and journalism is a wonderful way to do that. Bee reads The New York Times and The Washington Post. Bee's future career goals include being an anchor or journalist for a news outlet, because she loves researching and writing/speaking about current events, especially when it benefits a population. She would also like to explore being a short story writer or novelist. Whatever career path she takes she knows she wants to reach her with her writing or speaking and make an impact that is made possible through the written word. In her free time, Bee likes to read books, compete in karate, go thrifting with friends, and watch movies with her family. Bee's favorite book is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

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