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Rod Groff grew up playing chess to pass the time before and after school and eventually joined his high school’s chess team. But he didn’t give the game much thought as an adult until his kids learned how to play. It may have been the allure of prizes that jump-started their interest; in a decade-old photograph, his kindergarten daughter beams next to a trophy taller than she is.

Groff has since taught countless other kids and adults to play chess, and what was once a hobby has become a business. In October, he moved his growing chess academy, Play More Chess, to a new storefront in Hamden’s Whitneyville neighborhood. Housed in a former bank, the part-school, part-gathering place includes an old vault, now used for storage, and a teller’s window that’s the perfect nook for a table, two chairs and a chess board.

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In total, there’s seating for about 22 players upstairs and down at Play More Chess. One corner of the main floor serves as a mini classroom, where Groff used a chessboard banner to demonstrate possible moves to a group of boys in the Intermediate I class, otherwise known as Knights, one recent afternoon. They’d brought their workbooks, and Groff had a lesson plan posted, starting with some new terms like “skewers” and “capped pieces.” These kids had already learned the basics of play, and they were ready to build in some strategy.

Younger students move through the curriculum—a series of published workbooks—at their own pace in four-week blocks. Small group lessons are $18 per hour. But Play More Chess isn’t just for kids. Adults make up about half of Groff’s clientele, both learners and experienced players looking for a place to play and new opponents to play against. Adults sign up for lessons through Hamden Adult Education (you don’t have to live in Hamden to register) or purchase a membership for $8 a month, which allows them to drop in during scheduled casual play hours or anytime Play More Chess is open for a pickup game. Groff also teaches in after-school programs at Hamden’s Spring Glen and Bear Path elementary schools.

Chess is a challenge, Groff says, in more ways than the obvious, especially for kids. “One of the things we’ve learned is it can be hard on your ego,” he says. “It’s not like other games where might be a lot of luck involved, like cards or dice… Chess, you can get lucky if you make a mistake and your opponent doesn’t really see it or doesn’t capitalize on it, but it’s not the same kind of experience as other games.”

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Those challenges are also what make chess so engaging. “It’s really an amazing game in that there’s a lot of combinations that appear,” Groff says. Even though people tend to play similar openings in every game, after about three moves, each game takes on a life of its own, he says. “You have this picture of your ideal setup, but your opponent’s not going to necessarily let you do all these things.”

Still, there are some basic principles to follow, Groff says: control the center of the board, protect your king, use all your pieces. Serious players might use the numbered and lettered grid that gives every square its own “name” to record their moves so they can study them later. It’s even possible to study games that were recorded hundreds of years ago.

Chess teaches planning and strategy, a sense of consequences, patience, pattern recognition, sportsmanship—all important abilities, Groff says. But one thing he especially loves about the game is the fact that it’s intergenerational. He mentions a grandfather, father and son who had come in recently for casual play. “It’s good for you at all ages,” Groff says. One adult student told him that a seven-year-old boy at Play More Chess had helped her figure out a puzzle in her workbook.

An affiliate of the United States Chess Federation, Play More Chess also runs a monthly tournament for a $10 entry fee. Players compete in groups of four—”quads”—and winners take home cash and other prizes. Groff himself mostly plays online through an open source chess app. Despite speculation back in the late ’90s that the defeat of chess champion Garry Kasparov by IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer was the end of “over the board” chess, Groff says technology has only served to widen the universe of chess players, with apps matching similarly rated players for online games.

Still, his preference—for obvious reasons—remains playing face-to-face with your opponent. And the holidays are a great time for a game of low-stakes chess. “It’s a way to connect, you know?” Groff says, adding, “You don’t have to argue about things at the holidays. You can play chess!”

Play More Chess
1227 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
(203) 680-0657 |
Website | Hours

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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