HAMPDEN, Maine — David Bishop spends the school day as a custodian of mild manners, but before the final bell rings, he grabs his boards and chess pieces and begins his second role.
“The Queen’s Gambit” is taking place in real life in Maine, where this janitor is coaching his school’s chess teams to acclaim.
Bishop, a part-time chess coach and full-time janitor, led his elementary and high school teams to state championship titles this year, drawing comparisons to the Netflix series about a janitor-inspired chess prodigy.
Some of his players are good enough to beat their coach, proudly declaring “checkmate!”
“At first, it was humiliating and demoralizing, but it didn’t take me long to realize that’s a good thing. They are getting stronger,” the 61-year-old said.
Nationwide, chess is experiencing a new wave of popularity, and it’s not just because of the popular Netflix miniseries based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 book.
During the pandemic, a growing number of kids forced to stay home for extended periods have turned to Chess.com to alleviate their boredom. The website and app allow visitors to learn the game, play against each other or against a computer, and get chess news.
The website had 1.5 million daily users in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit the US full force, but grew to 4.5 million by the end of 2020. It had reached 10 million in January of this year. The total number of registered users has nearly quadrupled to 123 million, the company said.
Chess fans are also watching videos of grandmasters teaching strategy and live streams of high-profile chess players duking it out.
“What we are seeing is an unprecedented boom period like never before,” said Leon Watson, a spokesman for Chess.com. “It definitely looks like chess is having a moment.”
At Hampden, Bishop’s coaching success followed a happy twist of fate.
He was exhausted from his job in the telecom industry and took an early retirement package at age 50. He was exploring new opportunities in the field, and he wasn’t having much luck, when someone told him about a job as a school janitor. He thought it would be less stress.
He didn’t even know there was a chess club until he started working in 2013. He started volunteering with the chess club at Reeds Brook High School and later at George B. Weatherbee Elementary School as well.
Bishop learned chess the old-fashioned way, using a familiar board and experimenting with the pieces on the board: pawns, bishops, knights, rooks, queens, and kings. He would play with his brothers, sometimes in the family barn, learning the moves to checkmate his opponent’s king, the object of the game. At the age of 10, he followed with great interest the match in which American grandmaster Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union in 1972.
Although Bishop enjoyed chess and was good at it, he did not join his high school’s chess club because he was worried that he would be typecast as a nerd. He regrets that now.
These days, thanks to her growing appeal, those stereotypes no longer apply.
On a recent day, there was a buzz in the air in the Reeds Brook High School library, where the chess club meets. Bishop’s team had just represented Maine at the Texas national championships and placed eighth out of 52 teams. The elementary school team competes this weekend in their national championships in Maryland.
Students quickly tossed their backpacks aside, sat at library tables, and launched into the games. Those who were not actively playing carefully watched the movements of others.
Eli Marquis, 12, said chess players are constantly learning new skills and tactics, such as opening and closing moves, allowing them to improve and ensuring they don’t get bored.
“You can never run out of things to learn, practice and do, and you can keep improving as you practice. It does not have an end. Really,” she said.
13-year-old Eddie LaRochelle compared chess to other competitive team sports. A strong work ethic and practice enhance individual skills, and those people work together to achieve victory.
“You don’t need to work out every day in the gym. To get stronger, you can exercise your brain with puzzles, chess and other things, ”she said.
The lessons of the chessboard often carry over into life.
Team members said that chess has taught them to think ahead, be strategic and consider the ramifications of decisions. And it helps to stay on task and stay organized.
“Chess is so good for them, and most of them don’t know it,” their coach said. “They just play chess, but it’s like an exercise for the brain.”
Bishop understands the comparisons to the janitor from “The Queen’s Gambit”—William Shaibel, played by actor Bill Camp—and thinks it’s an entertaining series. The game of chess is precise and exciting, he said.
Camp, the actor, has heard about the team’s success and hopes to visit the school to congratulate them. He had high praise for Bishop.
“What he’s doing is the noblest thing one can do: he’s a teacher,” Camp said from Los Angeles. “He is doing the best service.”
Unlike the janitor on the Netflix series, Bishop is helping not just one girl in an orphanage, but dozens of children of all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds.
His only concern is that there aren’t so many girls playing chess.
Chess continues to be dominated by men and boys from the highest grandmaster level up to the elementary school level. Right now, there is only one woman on her champion high school team, but she hopes to change that by getting kids hooked at earlier ages, starting in kindergarten.
For now, Bishop waits to see how far his teams can go. As teams get better, he gets used to losing chess games more frequently.
Riley Richardson, who was ranked 14th out of 386 competitors at nationals, said the first time he beat his trainer, he thought Bishop was letting him win. But now, he’s beaten his trainer a couple of times.
Watch out for vulnerabilities.
“A while back, I actually beat him because I started to learn his weaknesses,” Richardson said. that weakness? She smiled and said, “Sometimes, you think too much.”
Follow David Sharp on Twitter @David_Sharp_AP