Chess wizard holds court at library

Fri, 08/31/2018 - 10:15am
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“I decided to start a chess club, and it’s taken off like wildfire.”

Chess wizard Graham Watkins made those comments while seated in front of two chessboards at the Island Free Library, where he’s been hosting games, and providing instruction, each August since 2011. Watkins, who uses a wheelchair, said he’s been coming to Block Island since he was born.

For a few weeks in August you might find him at the library, sacrificing his pawns, while concocting a strategy to capture the king. It took him about 20 minutes, and some nifty moves, to beat The Times. The outcome of the game seemed inevitable about 10 moves prior to its conclusion, but Watkins played it out to demonstrate his scheme.

“Thinking five or six moves ahead is an exciting part of the game, while also countering your opponent’s moves,” he said. “Within the first four or five moves of a game I can usually tell a player’s skill level. It’s fun seeing the variety of age ranges and skill level I come across when I’m out here.”

When The Times arrived to interview Watkins, he was giving instruction to two young girls he was playing simultaneously. Watkins was patient with the girls, explaining the basics, and nuances of the game, moving his focus back and forth between two chessboards.

“If they don’t have experience playing I usually give them an overview,” he said. “We play a game using just kings and pawns, and then I slowly start adding other pieces as we continue to play. We play until there are no pieces left on the board.”

Watkins can relate to being a neophyte, as he began playing the game when he was seven years old. He said that “every Saturday” when he was young, “My brother and I would go to the Rochambeau Library Chess Club” on Hope Street in Providence to learn and play. “I got hooked,” he said.

Watkins has been using a wheelchair since the age of 10, the result of a spinal malformation at birth. Surgery affected the muscles in his legs, and hips, he said. After the operation he was faced with the reality of life in a wheelchair. He’s had multiple surgeries over the years, including having to periodically replace a shunt designed to drain excess buildup of cerebrospinal fluid. 

“I was really young when I went through that,” said Watkins of his surgery. Despite his physical condition, Watkins said he doesn’t see it as a limitation. In fact, when speaking with him you are struck by his affable personality and hardly notice his wheelchair.

Watkins admitted that he feels like he’s at a crossroad in his life; trying to decide if he should pursue a career working in the theater, which is his first love, or teach. So, although he graduated from Rhode Island College as a theater major with a focus on technical theater, he is feeling the pull to get a teaching degree.

Watkins said he enjoys teaching children, including working with wheelchair users, and participates in sports clinics. He is an avid snow skier, both cross-country and downhill, and works as an usher for the Pawtucket Red Sox at McCoy Stadium.

“I tell the kids I work with to stay active, and not get down,” he said, noting that he tries to lead by example. “The kids don’t see me as a person confined to a wheelchair. They see me as someone who inspires them.”

Watkins said he is grateful for the help he received when first facing adversity, and has paid that back by working with children in the after-school program at The Gordon School in East Providence. According to its website, the school is a racially diverse, coeducational, independent school with grades nursery level to eighth grade. 

As for playing chess on Block Island, Watkins said there once was a taxi driver on the island who would stop by and give him a good game. “He beat me a few times,” Watkins said with a smile.

“I’ve met some interesting people playing here on the island,” said Watkins, who noted that if you want to challenge him to a game “just stop by and have a seat.” 

Library Director Kristin Baumann said, “We look forward to Graham’s arrival, and hope he continues to give his time to all of us for many more years to come. Thank you Graham!”