Sixty-nine-year-old Joe Lachat learned everything he knows about chess from a kid.
As a teacher at Brook Avenue Elementary School in Bay Shore, Lachat found himself enthralled by the acumen and enthusiasm of a student in one of his fourth-grade classes who turned him on to the rules and strategies of the game he now loves.
“Merton Sells,” the Bay Shore resident recalled with a smile. “I was 28 years old and he was 10. His mother played, too. She would have me over the house. At night we’d all sit in front of the fire, I would play his mother and Merton would play the winner.”
Now retired from teaching, Lachat has completed the circle by teaching chess to kids from kindergarten to eighth grade at the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Library for nearly 20 years. And in September, he started a chess club for adults in a secluded and peaceful wing of the library’s main floor.
There’s a rotating core of participants that’s growing, Lachat said. An avid group of players meet at 7 p.m. Thursdays for some preliminary friendly chit-chat then some serious mind games at the chess board.
Many in the core have been playing against each other regularly, so the competition can intensify as players learn each others' tendencies and try to adapt to gain an edge.
“It comes down to execution,” said 61-year-old Carmine Notaro, a real estate development banker from Bay Shore. “It’s like football. You start with fundamentals and then it comes down to variations and combinations.”
Like music and art, chess has that transcendental and intellectual quality that draws people from all walks of life together to study, compete and enjoy. Aside from Notaro and Lachat, Thursday night’s crew featured Eric Comstock, a painter from Bay Shore, and Charlie Evrard, a retired computer software specialist from West Islip.
There was also Henry Despres, an elevator technician and photographer from Bay Shore, who has beaten nationally ranked chess masters, played (and won) the game blindfolded and written a book on chess strategy.
“I started when I was 8 years old,” said the 53-year-old Despres. “I’ve read over 100 books and I studied the game for 16 hours a day. I’ve been away from the game for a while, so playing blindfolded – I might be a little rusty.”
Lachat’s vision for the adult chess club is to embrace the talents and knowledge of someone like Despres while also giving newcomers a place where they can learn the game in a friendly, pressure-free environment.
“All of these guys can beat me regularly,” Lachat laughed. “I’m not overly competitive. I do it because I love it. After two and half hours of chess, you feel like your brain has been cleansed, like you’ve gone for a long walk. It’s exhilarating.”
Charlie Evrard (left) squares off against Henry Despres during the weekly meeting of a chess club at the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Library. (Feb. 24, 2011)