At the Sanford Chess Club – founded by young Luke Elshoff – a new generation of players is keeping the classic game alive in our community.
They’re sitting in a crowded Sanford coffee bar, where the menu advertises frappés, macchiatos, and nitro cold brews.
They are studying their chess boards, contemplating the next move that will most likely lead to checkmate.
“They pretty much take over the dining room,” a barista remarks, though for as busy as the coffee shop is, there’s not a lot of java moving across the counter. That’s because it’ll be another few years before many of these players should indulge in the Jitter Juice. In about another seven or eight years, they’ll finally be eligible to vote.
If young people dominate the Sanford Chess Club, that may be because the club was founded by Luke Elshoff, who is all of 11.
Luke fell into the world of chess quite by accident.
That was about four years ago, when the Sanford branch of the Seminole County Public Library System offered a chess class for kids as part of its summer program.
“At first I wasn’t very good,” Luke says.
But he soon befriended a boy from Venezuela who taught him some moves. Luke developed confidence and then a love for the game. By the time his birthday rolled around, Luke was asking for chess strategy books rather than the latest video games, recalls his dad, Bill.
The summer program ended, and Luke’s Venezuelan friend moved away, but Luke “had been bitten by the chess bug,” says Bill.
The family learned about a chess club in Casselberry, where Luke continued to develop his game.
“There are some really strong chess players in that club,” Bill says. “They took Luke under their wing.”
Late last year, while driving around, Luke and his dad came up with the idea to start a club in Sanford, where they live.
They approached the manager of Palate Coffee Brewery, where the family enjoyed hanging out, and the nascent club found a home. Luke’s mom, Nina, advertised the club on Facebook, while the coffee bar agreed to put up flyers. The club meets there every other Tuesday between 6:00 and 8:00 p.m.
Soon, regulars were coming like clockwork to make tentative early moves with their pawns and guard their precious queens.
Although youths make up a significant portion of the club’s members, it has attracted attorneys, pastors, retirees – “people from all walks of life,” Bill says.
On a recent spring evening, Luke is fully engaged in a match at Palate, but he is frequently smiling and laughing. There is competition in the Sanford Chess Club, but it’s not intense competition.
“He’s not looking to become the next Bobby Fischer,” Bill says.
Luke describes his approach to the game as methodical rather than aggressive.
“I like close games,” he says. “When you’re always attacking, you lose pieces. It’s risky if things don’t go as planned.”
The members of Luke’s club are as valuable to him as his rooks and bishops. He even admits to throwing a game or two to keep a new member from getting discouraged.
On this particular evening, Luke is taking on 12-year-old Samuel Fong. Meanwhile, Samuel’s seven-year-old brother, Lucas, is challenging 11-year-old Ethan Hodges at the same table.
Ethan is a newcomer to the club, but his mom, Amy, hopes this chess thing sticks.
“I’m hoping it will make a big difference to him,” Amy says, “and help him learn to think ahead.”
Ethan gave his mom an encouraging sign before the night’s meeting.
“He dropped a video game to come here,” says Amy.
Luke, who is homeschooled, has always been a well-grounded kid, Bill says. He was an early reader who preferred the library to action movies. Luke also has a lot of patience and a natural talent for teaching others the game. At first, Bill was able to beat his son, but that hasn’t happened in over a year.
One of the great things about chess, Bill says, is that it has taught Luke all about losing.
“He takes losing quite well,” says Bill. “That sets him up for life. There are going to be losses.”
Just don’t expect too many at the coffee shop on alternate Tuesdays.
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