Custodian and chess coach David Bishop challenges 6th-grader Owen Isenhour during after-school practice, Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in Hampden, Maine. Under Bishop's tutelage, the Reeds Brook Middle School chess team has gained national recognition. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

This year has so far been a whirlwind for Hampden chess coach David Bishop and his teams of elementary and middle school chess players.

After winning the Maine state championships at both levels, they’ve been to the national championships, they’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars to fund their trips and they’ve been thrust into the national media spotlight through Bishop’s heartwarming story as a real-life “Queen’s Gambit” school janitor and chess coach.

“It has been a truly incredible and overwhelming experience,” said Bishop. “But now our season is over, and I am ready to proclaim it a big success. It has been a wild ride.”

In April, the Reeds Brook Middle School chess team took eighth place in the country at the national middle school championships in Texas, out of 52 teams in total. It was narrowly beaten for seventh place by a team from Brooklyn, New York, in a tiebreaker game. Reeds Brook player Riley Richardson placed 14 out of 386 middle school players nationally, and was awarded a top 25 medal.

And then, last weekend, the George Weatherbee Elementary School chess team went to Maryland to compete in the national elementary championships and placed 14th out of 53 teams nationally. Bishop said that the team’s opponents in the elementary-level competition were very strong, and each win was a hard-won battle.

“I think for a little chess club in a little town in a little state, we really did amazingly well,” he said.

In the two months since the Bangor Daily News first reported on Bishop and his student players back in March, other news outlets including CBS News, NBC Nightly News, NPR, CNN, the BBC and the Associated Press have picked up his story.

Bishop, who by day works as a janitor at the Weatherbee school, is similar to the janitor character in the popular Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit,” who introduces the main character, Beth Harmon, to the game. She later becomes a chess grandmaster.

That real-life analog to the fictional story has struck a chord with people — including Julie Tevis McGory, daughter of Walter Tevis, who wrote the novel the show was based on, who sent Bishop a message saying she thought he honored her father’s name. Bishop is also planning to meet with Bill Camp, the actor who played Mr. Shaibel, the janitor, on the show.

Bishop said all that media attention is why, at the middle school nationals, he was gobsmacked when chess grandmaster Julio Sadorra actually recognized him.

“I asked for his autograph, and Julio said he should be asking for my autograph, which is just ridiculous. We talked for about 20 minutes about his life, my life, and our passions to spread the love of chess. He is a lot like me,” Bishop said. “Later on, he let me cut in line so I could play him in a three-minute blitz game. I’m living the dream.”

Custodian David Bishop holds the trophy recently won by the Reeds Brook Middle School chess team in a national competition, Tuesday, April 25, 2023. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

For Bishop and his students, though, it’s all been a lesson in believing in yourself and teamwork.

“For the kids, they’ve had a blast, and all the attention and national spotlight has been really nice because it’s something they’ll never forget, and it’s allowed them a chance to gain a lot of confidence and to have that kind of top-level experience,” he said. “These competitions are stressful. Tears are shed. But they’ve got each other’s backs.”

The attention has also given Bishop a chance to advocate for chess as a sport at the primary and secondary school levels. After talking with coaches from around the country at the national championships, he knows that chess teams and coaches across the board suffer from a lack of support. Coaches are usually unpaid despite putting in 300 or more hours of work each season, and districts rarely provide things like transportation to and from tournaments for chess teams.

Bishop said he’s since received countless emails from chess coaches from around the country about the future of chess in schools and how to improve its standing.

“I feel really fortunate to have been given a national platform to raise awareness about how chess should have more parity with other sports,” he said. “We deserve to be treated equally to other sports and activities.”

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.