School custodian David Bishop can’t help but wince when a 10-year-old beats him at chess. He’s played for 50-plus years, and his chess skills are well above average.
It may sting, but when one of the district’s elementary- and middle-school students declares checkmate, his overwhelming feeling is pride. Bishop has coached in the district’s competitive chess teams and after-school clubs over the past eight years, helping to steer the teams to state championships.
“I have watched these kids grow and improve over the years, not just as players, but as people. It’s incredibly rewarding,” said Bishop, who is a custodian at the George B. Weatherbee School in Hampden, and has volunteered to coach chess there and at Reeds Brook Middle School since 2015.
Earlier this month, Bishop’s elementary- and middle-school chess teams captured both their divisions’ Maine state chess championships. The middle-school team will head to Texas for the national championships in April, while the elementary-school team will proceed to the nationals in Maryland in May.
There has been a surge of new chess players in recent years due in part to the popularity of the 2020 Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit,” about a troubled but brilliant player in the 1960s. Like the show’s main character, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Hampden students are being introduced to chess by their school’s custodian. The pandemic also contributed to the game’s resurgence, because people were stuck at home and could play online, Bishop said.
Both of Bishop’s teams are expected to win the scholastic grand prix, meaning they have also scored the most points at Maine chess events throughout the year. Weatherbee student Avery Zhang won the individual state elementary championship, and his brother, Christian Zhang, placed second for the individual state middle-school championship.
It’s a big win for both the students and for Bishop, who hopes to create a chess dynasty for Hampden schools in which they win the elementary, middle- and high-school state championships all in one year. He starts working with kids as young as age 5 at the K-2 Earl C. McGraw School in Hampden.
“If we start them young, the hope is that by the time they reach high school and they start working with the high school coach, Sam Manhart, that they’ll be that much more skilled and prepared,” Bishop said. “And they will really be immersed in the game and will truly love chess and want to stick with it.”
For Bishop’s students, chess is not just a fun game. It’s also a true workout for the most important muscle in the body: the brain.
“It really makes me think. And I love to be aggressive and see the look on my opponent’s face if I beat them,” said Derrick Johnson, a fifth-grader at Weatherbee. “Mr. Bishop is really fun. Playing chess has made me feel really confident. I really love chess now.”
Hampden native Bishop, now 61, was 10 years old in 1972 when American Bobby Fischer won his historic World Chess Championship against the Russian master Boris Spassky, a Cold War-era confrontation that ended 24 years of world domination in chess by the Soviet Union.
Bishop and his brothers followed the tournament each day in the Bangor Daily News, which would print diagrams of chess boards showing some of Fischer’s more spectacular moves.
“That’s really what got me interested in chess. That’s what Bobby Fischer did for the nation, really,” Bishop said. “I would play my brothers and my friends in our barn, and they would just destroy me. But that’s how you get better. You lose, and you learn.”
By the time Bishop reached high school, he opted not to join the chess team at Hampden Academy, for fear that he’d be branded a nerd. Like most teenages, he faced immense social pressure to fit in.
Though he continued to play chess for fun, he never pursued it beyond that until coming to Weatherbee.
That’s one of many reasons why Bishop is passionate about getting kids as young as 5 started in chess — to remove the stigma about the game being a “nerdy” pursuit, and to level the playing field between girls and boys. Despite it being one of the few sports where men and women can compete together, there are still disproportionately more men in the game, he said.
“If we had more female players, we would have more female grandmasters. That’s just a fact,” he said. “Little by little, things are changing. But we need advocates to make sure girls play as much as boys.”
After college, Bishop worked in telecommunications around New England for nearly 30 years. He was burned out by the end of his tenure in the industry in 2012, and had experienced a great deal of personal loss in his life as well, he said.
Looking for a less stressful job, he started working as a custodian at the Weatherbee school in 2015.
Bishop immediately got involved in the chess club and chess team, which at the time were coached by Sharyn Hastings. When she retired in 2015, he assumed the coach position. Since then, he said it’s been all chess, all the time.
“I really think these kids and being at this school were a reward to me, after a really difficult time in my life,” he said. “I feel like a grampy with 24 grandkids.”
Bishop has watched both the chess club and the competitive chess team grow in size and ability. In the 2019-2020 season, the Weatherbee school chess team won its first state elementary championship, and was slated to go to Nashville for the national championship — but the COVID-19 pandemic hit a week after their win, and the competition was canceled. The 2020-2021 chess season also was canceled during the pandemic.
That made this year’s wins even sweeter.
“It’s really easy for something like chess to get overshadowed by athletics and big sports like basketball, and for these kids, winning a title like this is proof that they are just as competitive and tough as physical sports,” he said.
For Bishop, chess is about much more than winning.
“I tell my kids that chess mirrors your life. If you work hard, if you don’t slack off, if you try, if you’re not discouraged by failure, you will be successful, whether it’s at school, at work or at chess,” he said.
The Weatherbee and Reeds Brook elementary and middle school chess teams need to raise approximately $50,000 to send all the students to the championships this spring in Maryland and Texas. For information on how to help, email David Bishop at email@example.com.