When the pandemic was at its peak last summer, Eli Paulk realized he wanted to make some life changes, so he quit his job and decided to go back to school to study psychology and philosophy at Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Like a lot of folks, he was bored and looking for something to engage with during the quarantine. It was then Paulk discovered chess.
He asked his friend Josh Loya to teach him how the pieces move, then buddy Zane Griffith helped him learn how to actually play.
“And then he became obsessed with it,” Griffith said.
Now, Griffith admits, Paulk is probably the better player.
“I saw the chess world blooming, and it was just something I knew I had to be a part of,” Paulk said. “I just loved it so much that everything after that came easy.”
And when the miniseries “The Queen's Gambit” premiered in October on Netflix, suddenly a lot of people were obsessed with chess. Chess was cool, especially with younger players who were entranced by Anya Taylor-Joy's compelling portrayal of Beth Harmon. The timing was perfect.
“I think it's just a common ground for people,” Paulk said. “You can just sit down and play somebody and you don't have to worry about anything but the game in front of you. It's a great icebreaker, too, as conversation evolves.”
Paulk was so inspired he founded the Fort Wayne Chess Club last year, though it's sometimes called simply Fort Chess. The group plays from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturdays at Start Fort Wayne, 111 W. Berry St., and co-hosts regular events at Promenade Park with the Take a Stand Chess Club. The next events are Sept. 26 and Oct. 31.
Fort Chess also provides a weekly chess puzzle Mondays in The Journal Gazette.
There have been informal chess organizations around Fort Wayne for decades, and though he's the Fort Chess founder, Paulk prefers to call himself the club's host. He's organized fundraisers to purchase clocks and chess sets, and club members are always willing to introduce the game to newcomers. The players range in age from 5 to more than 60.
“I think it always is a young person's game,” Paulk said. “If you play chess long enough, you're going to lose to a kid. That's just the truth of it. Every tournament that I go to, there are kids who are competing with people maybe they shouldn't be competing with realistically. The older guys know a certain amount of things which make them as good as they are, but the younger guys know that plus more because they are so young. Every generation gets better.”
Fort Chess will host its first major tournament Saturday at the Shoaff Park Riverlodge Indoor Pavilion starting at 11 a.m. The entry fee is $45 with $300 in prize money based on a 32-player field. Appropriately, the tournament is named The Fort Wayne Gambit.
“'The Queen's Gambit' really sparked a lot of interest in the younger crowd especially,” said club member Stephen May, 27. “It is a much younger audience. I would definitely say it's getting more traction in the more mainstream sense, a bit more hip, a bit more cool.
“It seems like we have a lot of college-age people as well as young parents who bring their children to learn the game. It's my hope to see more the middle school- and high school-aged kids start to come out to our club so that we can start integrating them a bit more.”
Part of that will be breaking down assumptions about who plays the game. Paulk, who played football and lacrosse at Snider High School, said he always assumed chess was a rich person's game.
“Playing chess holds a certain power to it, like, 'Oh, you are a chess player, you must be smart,'” Paulk said. “I hear that all the time, so it is a little intimidating to people who don't really know what chess is. You can be as good as you want to be. Once you learn the basics, it's really up to you how good you want to be. There's really nothing to it.”
If you go
What: The Fort Wayne Gambit chess tournament
When: First round starts at 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Shoaff Park Riverlodge Indoor Pavilion, 6401 St. Joe Road
Cost: $45 to enter; $300 prize money based on 32-player field; for more information or to register, go to https://new.uschess.org/fort-wayne-gambit-300 or email firstname.lastname@example.org