A quest for kings — and burgers

By Louis Bettcher | Jul 23, 2017
Photo by: Louis Bettcher Clockwise from top right: chess enthusiasts Craig, Fred, Frank and George consider their next move in Rockland July 6.

Rockland — I spent an afternoon last week perusing the community calendar on Village Soup. I was looking for an event that would take me out of my comfort zone. I hoped to find something unusual, preferably free, and my eyes were caught by an announcement that a local chess club would be meeting at the Rockland Burger King.

“We welcome all participants ... come and enjoy an evening of chess with us. Free. Bring a board or use one of ours. Great eats are available at the counter while you enjoy your evening of Chess with us!”

This seemed to fit the bill: I don't own a chess board, and there was no ominous mention of skill level or strict competition. Plus, I do enjoy the occasional Whopper.

Burger King and chess are two things that don't immediately lend themselves to an easy correlation. In fact, the two elements -- a fast-food restaurant and a classic game of skilled strategy – seem quite disparate.

I have always considered chess a serious intellectual pursuit. Perhaps too serious or methodical for me, because when I do play casually at a friend's house, I tend to move through the game as quickly as possible; pleased whenever I make a successful play and win a piece from my opponent, but usually just going through the motions until the game is completed, he or she has won, and we can move on to another activity.

Also, though I have played several times over the years, I tend to forget some of the rudimentary elements each time I sit down to a game (e.g., how many spaces the king or queen can move, and how to arrange the board). I thought that by observing the chess group at Burger King I would be able to glean some information from the seasoned players, memorialize some basic strategy and rules, and improve my skill at a game that tends to pop up unexpectedly at social gatherings.

Before I arrived at Burger King that Thursday, I reached out to the group's organizer, Craig Borgerson, who had included his email address in the calendar listing. I informed Craig that I was interested in attending and that I hoped to write an article about the club for the newspaper. He said he and the other members would welcome my presence, and urged me to participate in a couple of games in the event that I came.

I was rather nervous driving to the restaurant that evening, unsure of what lay before me. As I sat in the parking lot gathering my notebook and camera, I wondered if this was a good idea. Perhaps, despite Craig's kind words, the other members would cast me out and consider me an interloper upon hearing that I was a reporter. Not to mention the fact that these individuals play chess professionally – which poor soul would want to be stuck with me, the casual, fumbling novice?

I threw open the door to the restaurant and stepped into the dining area. Here I found a group of four men sitting in pairs across from one another in a booth, two chess boards arranged on the table between them. The table at a nearby booth was also equipped with extra boards, pieces and timers.

“Craig?” I asked the group, and Borgerson stood up and introduced me to his companions: Frank, Fred and George. The men were all courteous, and I didn't get any wayward glances or snubs as I reached out to shake their hands. They were in the midst of playing, but seemed genuinely pleased (or at least pleasantly indifferent) to my presence. I was still a bit nervous, and found myself issuing a spate of questions as an ice-breaker.

“Now did you all choose Burger King because of the king piece in chess? What is the protocol when it comes to eating food while playing? Do you mind me talking to you while you play?” My fears were quickly allayed.

“We don't mind if people eat while they're playing, we don't take ourselves too seriously,” said Frank, the youngest of the three, and an accountant.

Borgerson, a retired educator, said the group would be happy to answer my questions while they played a series of 10-minute warmup games. He explained that they usually start with these quick games to get their energy up and have an opportunity for some fast-paced movement before the members embark on open-ended games. In the past these have lasted beyond four hours, Borgerson said.

I learned that the group was founded in the late 1970s. Gail Frye, a former teacher at Rockland District Middle School, was active in bringing the club together initially, Borgerson said. Frank, who grew up in Lincolnville, heard about the Rockland group while attending a chess tournament in Portland. All four men in attendance the night I was there have been playing chess in the group for at least 20 years.

One of the first iterations of the group was at the now-defunct Mr. Paperback in Harbor Plaza, where they played until the business closed its doors, and then moved the club to the nearby Tim Horton's. Then Tim Horton's closed.

“We're the kiss of death,” joked Borgeson. When he approached Burger King to see if the club could meet on Thursday nights at the restaurant, the manager “kind of just shrugged his shoulders and said 'sure.'” That was four years ago. Borgeson said this location has been great for them: there is plenty of space, the menu is great, and the only thing that may have suffered so far is their cholesterol.

In addition to the club's Thursday night meetings, many of its members (there are approximately 30 active members in the group) participate in statewide tournaments where cash prizes are awarded. But the men told me the national ranking they receive through tournament play is often more of an incentive to participate than the money.

The group is also involved in “correspondence” chess: games played across the country (or the globe) with complete strangers. Each player or team sends the coordinates on the board for their move, and waits for a response from their opponent. The Rockland group is currently in the midst of a long-distance game with a team from Michigan (the Mainers have been victorious in three games against them to date.)

Frank said he has participated in up to 100 correspondence games at one time. I asked if he finds it difficult to remember each game, the last move, etc. as time passes. For this purpose, Frank has invested in a high-tech device that allows him to record the movement of play on a number of different virtual boards. He said many of the people he has competed against in correspondence are prison inmates.

“They're usually very good. Of course, they have a lot of time to play and work on their game,” joked Frank.

When it came time for me to play, all four members took the opportunity to instruct me and give me advice. I learned about "developing" (bringing pieces out in front of the pawns) and also the concept of "tempo" (don't use the same piece twice in a row when you're starting out.)

From all walks of life, these individuals had found a pursuit that they were passionate about, and willing to share with others. And it was clear that, as much as they love the game, the chess group was also a venue to laugh, talk about current events, and maintain friendships.

I left feeling that I had been welcomed into a new group, one I could return to at any time. Despite my lack of skill or practice, the four members assembled there Thursday evening included me 100 percent, and took time out of their regular competition to teach me and offer tips and feedback.

After my final game, I gathered up my notebook and camera, but remembered a chess question that I had been meaning to ask earlier.

“So, what does the term 'king me' mean? When do you get to say that?”

“That's checkers!” they said unanimously.

The Rockland chess group meets each Thursdays at Burger King, 49 Camden St., from 5 to 8 p.m.

Comments (2)
Posted by: CRAIG BORGERSON | Jul 25, 2017 21:23

Louis, thank you for joining us for an evening of chess and for giving our chess group a little boost.  I think your article captured the spirit of the evening and the spirit of our club.  Hopefully your article will catch the eye of others who might want to enjoy an evening of chess with us at Burger King.  We certainly hope you will join us again for another evening of fun.

Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Jul 24, 2017 09:20

This is a great idea!  Being a little slower I stick to the Skip-Bo table at Rockland Congregational Church game time Mondays 1-3. Others play bridge. Anyone is welcome. 

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