When the chess pieces were in place on all seven boards, Hugo Mattern-Ortiz began asking questions.
“What’s this game called? “ Mattern-Ortiz asked the young children around him. He proceeded to name the pieces, holding up each piece and then explaining how it could be moved on the board.
A few minutes later, with Mattern-Ortiz supervising, the children began moving pieces around the board, spending the hour—4:30 to 5:30—playing chess together on a Friday afternoon at the Southeast Regional Branch Library.
Mattern-Ortiz is a volunteer. For one hour each week for the past four years, he has been teaching chess at the library to anyone six or older who shares his interest in the game. He started as a junior at Englewood High School, looking for community service hours. Now as a student at Florida State College at Jacksonville, juggling courses and part-time work, Mattern-Ortiz is still volunteering. He says he has lost track of how many hours he has spent at the library.
His passion for chess began with his Uncle Hugo, a tournament level player in Monterrey, Mexico, who shared the game with his young nephew. He wants to do the same for other children.
“Chess clears the mind,” Mattern-Ortiz said, explaining that you have to focus on the action and forget everything else. He believes that teaching the game to others also helps him improve his own game.
Since March, he has been happy to have the assistance of a second volunteer, Shreyas Garimella, a junior at Paxon High School. Garimella spent most of the hour walking around and supervising the players who had attended a class before and were able to play a bit more independently. Calling himself a chess enthusiast, Garimella said he wants the hour to be fun for the kids, enjoying chess at their level.
“Today was big group,” he said, of the 12 children, who sat around tables huddled together. “But it was fun.”
Some parents watched at the tables; others like Ally Smith sat in a chair nearby, enjoying some time with a book. Her teenage daughter was volunteering in the library, while her eight-year-old son was playing chess, and a younger daughter was playing in the children’s room.
“I’m very thankful that these big guys are helping these kids,” she said. “I know they are busy and they are taking their time to teach chess.” Smith said her son has played five or six times and now is getting very good. He never likes to miss now and has started playing at home with his dad.
“Here it is safe for my children, and I can read my books and relax and they are having fun,” she said.
At the other end of the table, Jonathan is playing with Arshia, one of the children’s mothers.
Mattern-Ortiz is watching as they make their moves.
“I was trying to get one of my rooks back because I’m really running out of people, as you can see,” Jonathan said. He has played before and, despite his young age, knows the game well enough to explain rules to Arshia, who is also learning.
Mattern-Ortiz moves closer to examine the board.
“You have to say, ‘Check’, ” he told Arshia.
“You’re in trouble,” he told Jonathan.
(This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of Southside NewsLine, www.southsidenewsline.com.)