Severna Park High School sophomore Matthew Zhou started his journey with chess at Folger McKinsey Elementary School. It was there that the 8-year-old Matthew got connected with the school’s chess club.
The young Matthew’s parents registered him for a chess tournament soon after.
“It was my first chess tournament, so I was pretty nervous,” Matthew said. “I didn’t perform that well, but then after seeing my results, I was like, ‘OK, I’m not going to stop until I win one of these.’”
At the age of 12, he fulfilled that pledge with a tournament win. That victory cemented his love of chess.
Fast forward to the 16-year-old version of Matthew and there’s more hardware on his mantle now. In April, Matthew was crowned champion of the inaugural Anne Arundel County Public Schools Chess Championship, where he held off Crofton High School’s Dylan Snow in a hard-fought finals. Shortly after, he notched a 10th place finish — out of nearly 400 entries — in the Maryland State Scholastic Tournament, held in Damascus.
“I did think I would perform pretty well knowing that I’ve been playing chess for so long,” Matthew said.
Although Matthew prioritizes school and homework, he said whatever free time he has, he likes to spend with the game.
“I do hope to see chess become more popular,” Matthew said. “I believe with more mainstream media about chess such as “The Queen's Gambit,” there will be another chess boom in the world, and hopefully further on. I believe chess is very beneficial to the mind and is one of many strategy games that improves a person's decision-making skills.”
Matthew cites the hit-Netflix show, along with the timing of the pandemic, as sources of a renewed, and passionate, interest in chess.
One place Matthew likes seeing it become more popular is within his own school’s hallways. The Chess Club at Severna Park High School meets during a period of time marked off for elective pursuits.
Chess Club sponsor and Severna Park High School educator Melissa Bertinatti oversees the eclectic mix of regulars and newbies who make up the club that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“I had a student who expressed an interest in organizing a club for chess — and I was happy to help,” Bertinatti said. “Especially after COVID, I think we are all enthusiastic about promoting and supporting real-time, face-to-face interaction.”
The benefits of utilizing chess in the classroom isn’t a modern concept. In his 1786 article, titled “The Morals of Chess,” Benjamin Franklin wrote that “life is a kind of chess” and touted the game’s virtues in teaching important skills.
“I am very hopeful to see chess start to be considered an actual sport rather than just a casual board game in the near future,” Matthew said. “Sure, it isn't a physical game, but it is very indeed a mental one. There is research that shows that a chess player could burn up to 132 calories per hour. I am also hoping that it gets to a point where chess is not associated with a game that ‘nerds’ play."
An article and innovative mind aren’t the only things tying Matthew’s chess journey to the iconic inventor and founding father. Matthew’s brother, Jeffrey, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania — the same school Franklin founded. The young Matthew currently holds familial bragging rights with chess. He got his older brother into the game, and now, the Severna Park High School student can boast that he can beat an Ivy League graduate.
“It’s definitely a good feeling to see a lot of people getting into the game,” Matthew said as he looked around the full room of students gathered for the club that promotes the game — or is it sport? — he loves.
That’s good news for the education front, according to the results of a survey of New York schools in a 2017 report cited by the International Chess Federation. According to the report, 91% of teachers reported that practicing chess enhanced students’ cooperation skills. The same report cited that 89% of teachers said chess enriched their students’ social skills.
Severna Park High School junior Joshua Felder helped revive the Chess Club last year. For him, it’s the ability to meet with others with similar mindsets to his own that draws him in week after week.
“What I enjoy most about having a chess club at SPHS is the ability to meet others with similar mindsets,” Joshua wrote in an email. “I have Asperger's, so socializing can be quite a challenge for me. When I go to the chess club, I find it calming, as the game itself, for me, is relaxing and entertaining.”
As for Matthew, his sights are set for earning a high enough rating to place him amongst the professional elite of chess one day. His backup plan isn’t too shabby, either. Matthew has an interest in computer science.
“My goal for next year is to reach a rating of 1800,” Matthew said. “A rating is a number that determines the strength of a player. The higher the number, the stronger the player. For example, Magnus Carlsen, the number one ranked player in the world has a rating of 2852. My rating is 1531.”