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Gainesville the 'queen' city for budding chess culture

PunkOuter Games in Gainesville prepares to host the first-ever chess tournament on April 20, 2024. (Riley Beiswenger/WUFT News)
PunkOuter Games in Gainesville prepares to host the first-ever chess tournament on April 20, 2024. (Riley Beiswenger/WUFT News)

Decades span the chess players practicing each week in Gainesville, as this growing subculture raises the stakes of the game and its popularity.

Every week, players of all ages gather to compete against each other in chess. On April 20, a tournament at PunkOuter Games, a game and hobby store in Gainesville, showcased many of these young and highly dedicated players.

“Gainesville is a hotbed for chess,” said Kevin Pryor, the tournament’s coach and the vice president of the United States Chess Federation. Pryor estimates there to be around 200 players in the city.

Pryor runs Wednesday games in Gainesville and coaches an academy on Sundays in Jacksonville with 130 students. Pryor says the children are highly involved and committed.

Many of his students, and those playing in the tournament, started playing chess in school. “People don’t realize how many children play because of school programs, but they are also not aware that the kids are often as good or better than the adults,” Pryor said.

Stephen Faraone (right) focuses on his next move as Suraj Jani, 5, (left) stops the clock after his move. Faraone is trying to remedy his mistake on his past move. (Riley Beiswenger/WUFT News)
Stephen Faraone (right) focuses on his next move as Suraj Jani, 5, (left) stops the clock after his move. Faraone is trying to remedy his mistake on his past move. (Riley Beiswenger/WUFT News)

Oak Hall School, a private school in Gainesville, is known for its excellence in chess, according to Pryor. The school has incorporated chess into its curriculum and as a result, its chess club consists of about 40 students, many of whom have learned to excel in the sport. Oak Hall’s chess club is also highly successful, claiming 19 consecutive state championships.

These children are coached at school in addition to participating in outside programs.

“Parents are the real heroes of this, though. They sit here for hours and travel all around the states for tournaments. I know I've seen some at national tournaments,” said Pryor.

PunkOuter Games tournament showcased many of these young and highly dedicated players.

“It is very involved,” said Pryor.

These children are showing prodigy level skills, according to Pryor. “Notice the kids are winning,” said Pryor.

Suraj Jani, 5, holds the title of the Florida K1 champion. He has played since he was 3 years old, according to his mother, Bhumi Rawal. His three older siblings also compete, his oldest brother holding a national championship title.

Suraj learned chess from his class at Oak Hall School and is a part of the chess club.

“He’s very competitive. He likes to win, and when he wins, he wants to play more,” said Rawal.

Suraj won games one and three in this tournament, taking a loss in the second game.

Suraj Jani, 5, makes his move which later leads him to victory. (Riley Beiswenger/WUFT News)
Suraj Jani, 5, makes his move which later leads him to victory. (Riley Beiswenger/WUFT News)

“He’s also very young and immature, so sometimes he makes silly blunders that cost him a game,” Rawal said.

Many others at the tournament picked up the sport as a hobby or a way to connect with friends. Grace Yang, 10, began playing three years ago.

“At first, I started playing because all of my friends would play with me, but now none of them play anymore,” Grace said. Since then, she has discovered a passion and talent for the sport and plays competitively.

Similarly, Yohan Esakkimtuhu, 11, picked up the game from his father’s friend around five months ago. He soon began to love the game and wanted to share it with his friends, according to Yohan.

“I just like the sport. It reminds me of soccer or football, and it's like a tactical game, and how you focus determines whether you can win or not,” said Yohan.

Grace Yang (left) competing against tournament coach Kevin Pryor (right). (Riley Beiswenger/WUFT News)
Grace Yang (left) competing against tournament coach Kevin Pryor (right). (Riley Beiswenger/WUFT News)

To these players, chess is not just a board game.

“Chess is like a language,” Pryor said. “There is a certain beauty to some of the moves you can make,” said Stephen Faraone, 67.

Each player is ranked by their ability to be grouped in the tournament at PunkOuter Games. Four tables of four compete amongst each other, the winner being whoever ends their three games with the most matches won. The remaining players play a small Swiss style of game with seven players. These players are competing for a $50 prize in each group.

This tournament was a first for PunkOuter Games, according to Biron Ecker, co-owner.

The store was excited to welcome a new type of gameplay to their location and hope to continue in the future, according to Ecker.

Pryor and Ecker say they will continue to work together to host more tournaments in the future to continue to give these athletes a place to compete.

Riley is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.