For many people and families, a trip to Wyoming is a long-anticipated adventure, a checkmark on a bucket list.
Between the thermal features of Yellowstone National Park, the awe-inspiring landscapes of the Big Horns and the state’s Wild West heritage, there is much about the Cowboy State to draw tourists year after year.
On the list of things to do in Wyoming, playing and/or watching a rousing game of chess has probably been at or near the bottom — until now.
“I think part of our vision is to really make Sheridan a hub for chess in the United States,” said Brian Kuehl, treasurer of the Sheridan Chess Association, which is hosting its second annual tournament Friday through Sunday at the Ramada Inn.
“And why not here?” he said. “We're a beautiful place. People love to come visit just over the hill to Yellowstone, and then Battle of Little Bighorn and Devils Tower. I mean, there's all sorts of reasons to come here, so bring your family, come on vacation and play some chess.”
Kuehl said this weekend’s event will be the largest chess tournament ever held in Wyoming.
“We're currently at 81 registered, but expecting that number to climb. I would bet we’ll hit 90 to 100 participants,” he said, adding that some of those players will come from as far away as Georgia and Pennsylvania.
“People are traveling a great distance to come to Sheridan to play chess,” said Kuehn. “And that's pretty exciting.”
The resurgence of the centuries-old game (the earliest form of chess can be traced back 1,500 years) may come as a mystery to some, but Kuehn can point to two recent factors: The isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic and a popular Netflix series about a female grandmaster chess player.
“COVID, in a funny way, really caused a boom. I think that a lot of people had time on their hands and went online and found websites like chess.com, where you go on and play people all over the world,” he said. “And then certainly part of it was ‘Queen’s Gambit’ (on Netflix).
“I think that really captured the imagination of a lot of people who, again, probably knew how to play chess but hadn't really thought about playing it competitively. That was a pretty inspirational story.”
Chess Is Life
For Tim Schoessler of Powell, chess is more than a game – it’s an obsession.
An accomplished concert pianist and avid hiker and climber, the 41-year-old has been playing chess for most of his life. Schoessler told Cowboy State Daily he’s been ranked in the top 0.2% of players on chess.com for several years.
“Chess was actually the thing I fell in love with before anything else,” he said. “I learned at the age of 5, my parents taught me. We're talking like, pre-internet days, so there was really no chess instruction that I could get. I played on my own until we got our first PC in the early ’90s, and it had a chess master program on it, and I played it obsessively.”
Schoessler is the reigning co-champion for the state of Wyoming. He tied last year with Cheyenne’s Dan Joelson, who Schoessler said is probably the strongest player in the state — and who also will compete this weekend.
“He holds the record for the most Wyoming state championships,” he said. “I think he's got 21 (titles). I’ve only got three. But he and I, we've been competing against each other in state championships dating back, I think our first matchup was in 1998.”
Schoessler said he’s thrilled to see interest in the game surge.
“In the past in Wyoming, tournaments have usually been pretty small,” he said. “I remember in the late ’90s, there would be tournaments with 40 to 50 players, and it hasn't been uncommon to have 10 to 15 players at a tournament in this state. And there's only a couple a year.”
Chess Knows No Boundaries
Kuehl said one of the things he finds most fascinating about the game is that it appeals to all ages and backgrounds.
“There will be kids as young as 5 years old and players in their 80s, so you get this incredible diversity of age,” he said. “And then you get people from all walks of life, people who are highly educated, people who probably don't have a college degree, but they love the game.”
Kuehn added that the game of chess knows no politics, which he finds refreshing.
“It's a space where we can leave the noise of politics behind and just focus on the pure logic and beauty and elegance of the game,” he said.
Schoessler echoed that sentiment.
“I find a lot of beauty in just the possibilities on the board,” he said. “There's so many different combinations of moves, that the game has not been solved.”
Kuehn said the popular website chess.com has played a large part in tearing down boundaries and encouraging international relations. At any given time, hundreds of thousands of people are logged onto the website, playing against other players across the globe.
“I regularly play players in Brazil or in Germany (online),” said Kuehn. “There are people all over the world, logging on and playing chess against each other.”
The concept of chess tourism isn’t anything new – from New York City to Azerbaijan to Iceland, tournament organizers entice players by marketing the combination of stimulating games and rich local culture.
Kuehn said the Sheridan Chess Association would like to make its tournament a “destination tournament,” drawing players from around the country and the world.
“Last year, we had a team come from the Kyrgyz Republic,” said Kuehn. “We had four players and two coaches come and participate in our tournament. So, I think we would like to be a destination tournament for top level players, and sort of be on the circuit of chess tournaments.”
To increase the draw to Sheridan in particular, the Sheridan Chess Association and the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library announced this week the creation of the new Wyoming State Chess Library, housed at the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library.
The collection of roughly 1,100 chess books and DVDs places Sheridan among the top public collections of chess books and DVDs in the United States, and the largest in the Rocky Mountain West.
Michelle Havenga, interim director of the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library, said the collection is getting a lot of attention.
“Every day, people come to the library to play chess and check out the collection,” she said. “And we are receiving loan requests from libraries across the U.S.”
Grandmasters Inspire The Next Generation
Kuehl said this weekend’s tournament is drawing some very special guest players who have been named the best of the best by the International Chess Federation: grandmasters Alex Fishbein from Tennessee and Fidel Corrales Jimenez from New York.
He said that these high-level strategists will inspire the next generation of chess players.
“Fidel Corrales Jimenez, he's a first generation in the U.S. He was born and raised in Cuba and started playing chess when he was 6,” said Kuehl. “He's now one of the top players in the world. And on Thursday, we're going to tour all of the elementary schools in Sheridan and talk with the kids about chess, talk to them about his experiences growing up in Cuba and what it's like to play chess as a grandmaster.”
Schoessler pointed out that the accessibility of how-to videos and competitive websites all appeal to younger players.
“They all have access to grandmaster lessons on YouTube,” he said.
Schoessler is a big proponent of the game as a tool for developing young minds.
“There's been study after study that has shown that children that play chess from an early age exhibit better decision making, and have higher academic achievement,” he said. “It really does teach the importance of planning ahead for the future and being able to look down the road, because every move you make has consequences for the position, and so it really mirrors life in that way.”
While Schoessler said his own teenagers haven’t committed time to the game like he did when he was a child, he’s got a 2-year-old that he’s introducing to his obsession.
“I taught my daughter, when she was probably 15-16 months old, all the names of the pieces,” Schoessler said. “And she's been able to identify them ever since. The knight was the hardest because it looks like a horse, so she wanted to call it a horse instead of a knight.”
Tournament Is Open To Every Level
Last year, the tournament attracted more than 75 contestants and was won by international master Justin Sarkar from New York.
This year the tournament has been expanded to include $7,575 in prize moneyawarded across four divisions, so people can play against others of varying skill levels – from beginners to some of the top players in the world.
Registration for the tournament is still open.
“You do have to be a U.S. Chess Federation member,” said Schoessler. “But that's really easy, just go online and pay your yearly dues, it's not that expensive.”
Kuehn hopes that tournaments like this one, and the resurgence in popularity of the game, could increase Wyoming’s visibility in the world of chess.
“I think our vision is, let's build Wyoming as a true force for chess, and there's no reason we can't,” said Kuehn. “Yeah, we only have 500,000 people. But you know, let's start working with kids when they're young, and build the state into a real powerhouse.”
Visit the Sheridan Chess Association online to register for the tournament and for links to join the U.S. Chess Federation.