Meghan Hemmer was flushed with the excitement of a checkmate. The 11-year-old who just won her first match Saturday afternoon at the Mayor's Cup Chess Championship described the moment.
"All the butterflies that you have from being nervous disappear because you know you're going to win," said the Casey Middle School student. "My opponent made a couple of mistakes and I made some too, but he made more."
The ninth annual tourney was sponsored by the Archangel 8 Chess Academy, with Michael McDuffie as tournament director. Sanctioned by the U.S. Chess Federation, the event drew 70 players of all ages to the Old First Ward Community Center.
Since the years that Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky sparred over the chessboard in Reykjavik, chess has gained followers. Some 605 million adults play chess regularly, according to polling firm PolGov.
The U.S. Chess Federation, meanwhile, is experiencing growth powered by women and children, said McDuffie, who carries a bag of 20 chess "mats" and playing pieces daily when he coaches.
At Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library, he tutors the Urban Thinkers. In Lockport he coaches the Golden Knights. And at the First Ward Community Center he meets with the Irish Buffalos.
McDuffie started his enrichment programs at the old North Jefferson branch Library. In 2010 he started the Urban Queens Chess Club to teach women of all ages. He said chess helps build self-esteem in children who may lack a strong family structure
"It gives them stability," he said. "I like to get them out of a house and get them interested in meeting other people. The chess board levels all factors."
Aniyah Neasman, 9, plays best with pink game pieces. A fourth-grader at the Aloma D. Johnson Community Charter School, she participates in the school's chess club. Aniyah has three trophies, all of them won at matches McDuffie holds monthly at the Main Place Mall.
"She's a thinker," said Tammy Gayles, Aniyah's mother. "It's easy for her to grasp the principles of the game. She takes pride in being able to do something difficult. Three weeks ago when she was learning long division, she made up numbers in her head like it was a game. This ability helps her in chess."
The Mayor's Cup drew a contingent of players from Toronto looking to boost their ranking and compete against fresh opponents.
Gary Hua attended with his son Eugene and daughter Michelle. Michelle, a third-grader, won her first match, and lingered by the scoring wall to double check her score.
One by one the players left the hushed playing room after finishing their matches. Their faces and gaits telling whether they won or lost. At the door, McDuffie sat watching.
"There should be more people playing chess," he said. "Some of these kids sleep with the trophies they win."