As a girl growing up on a farm near Maple Lake, Janette Kamp played chess with her dad at the kitchen table.

The battered playing pieces were made of wood, and the farmhouse battles were waged in the glow of electric light that was new to the farm 75 years ago.

Did little Janette, now a vibrant 85-year-old, narrate those long-ago games as she did last week when she faced Pete Pappas across a chess board at Friendship Village in Bloomington?

“I don’t know how we got into this mess,” she said, staring at the board as Pappas contemplated his next move, brow furrowed.

“He’s really being very difficult,” she announced a minute later. Pappas made a move. “Oops, you didn’t want to do that!” she said, sweeping his bishop off the board.

“Why did I do that?” Pappas moaned.

Kamp and Pappas are among residents at the senior living community who since January have been learning — or sometimes, relearning — chess. Their teacher is 17-year-old Connor Quinn, a Blake School junior and chess expert who last year finished 30th in the United States Chess Federation National High School Chess Tournament.

Quinn, who lives in Wayzata, lost his grandfather last year. The two were close. Quinn knew about Friendship Village because his family had hoped his grandfather would live there.

“Chess has given me so much,” Quinn said. “I wanted to give back. ... I’d taught kids before, and it’s an experience. They’re rambunctious. I wanted a bit of a change.”

Working with seniors is the opposite of working with children, he said. Kids catch on fast but don’t listen; adults listen but are slower to grasp the complexities of the game. Last week, six Friendship Village residents practiced what they had learned by playing each other. Connor’s sister Cindy, 16, and mother, Colleen, helped out.

Mastery of the game varied among players. Some were contemplating strategy while others were trying to remember how different pieces could legally advance across the board. Players helped each other as Connor Quinn wandered from game to game, answering questions and offering suggestions. The seniors marveled as he whipped pieces off the board to demonstrate successive moves and expertly put them back where they’d been before.

“It’s a good challenge, and he’s an excellent teacher,” said Gary Nelson, 92. “I have a grandson who plays, and I’d like to be some competition to him. It’s fabulous to understand the game.”

Helen McNulty, also 92, said learning the game was rewarding. “I have to study; it’s a strategic game,” she said. “I think it’s good to prevent Alzheimer’s.”

But she had a personal interest in chess, too. “I want to learn so I can beat my grandson,” she said with a sly smile.

‘You have to think’

Residents at Friendship Village play cribbage, bridge and whist, but the chess students said that as far as they knew, no one was gathering to regularly play chess. Pappas, who is 90, said he had played chess against a friend who was a good player but hadn’t beaten him. Kamp said she and her friend Pappas were in the chess class because “we have to learn strategy,” and should perhaps keep a chess gathering going.

“It’s something interesting to learn,” Kamp said. “You have to think. That’s what seniors need.”

Connor Quinn said he’s enjoyed the weekly chess sessions, as has his sister. “I love helping everyone,” said Cindy Quinn, who stopped playing competitive chess long ago because she got tired of losing to her brother. “It’s great to watch them evolve and learn; they’ve learned so much.”

As has her brother. “Some of these people are super sharp, while others are still grasping concepts,” he said. “It’s definitely an experience. Usually they are teaching me.”

He hovered over the board as Kamp and Pappas played. “Sometimes, little moves are the best,” he said.

Kamp took Pappas’ knight. “You can’t do that,” Pappas responded, and then shook his head. “Oh yes, I guess you can.”

But he counterattacked. “Check!”

“You’re being awfully ornery,” Kamp said, and blocked his king with a rook.

Chess’ myriad moves can combine into millions of sequences. Though Connor Quinn studies chess daily and has earned an “expert” rating through competition, he said chess is a game that is constantly revealing new things to players.

“I’ll play for the rest of my life and I hope they do too,” he said.


Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.