MOUNT VERNON — Since helping start the Mount Vernon Township High School (MVTHS) Chess Team back in the early 2000s, Coach Bill England has taken pride in his players’ passion for chess as this year’s team prepares for the 2021-2022 Team Chess State Series.
The 2021-2022 Team Chess State Series is being held Feb. 11-12 at the Peoria Civic Center in Peoria. Earlier this week, England and the team were preparing for the competition as he commented on this season.
“It has been erratic, with all the virtual, I don’t like virtual and apparently the students didn’t like it much either, because it was horrible trying to get them to show up,” England said. “But when we finally met face to face, we got the whole team back together for the first time since our first meet and they did really well. So I am hoping that they will do really well at state. Our best we have ever done is win four out of seven games, I would love to see us beat that.”
England said that the state competition includes seven rounds with approximately 1,500 students competing within 128 teams. He said it is their job as coaches to make the students better chess players than themselves.
“We are hoping by the time they graduate that we can’t win a game from them, but we will make them work for it,” England said.
The chess team consists of nine active members. This includes Caden Cook, Caleb Belmont, Ryan Bendersky, Kara Klos, Eli Harris, Ben Zirkelbach, Raedan Szarek, Ayden Sloan and Matthew Hocking. Chess coaches include England and assistant coaches Stan Bumpas and Mike DeVilbiss.
“There are all sorts of levels of players on the team, some that are pretty good and some that are pretty much just learning, so we help them all,” DeVilbiss said. “I play some of the stronger players just to try and beef up their skills and others are kind of like a teaching moment.”
The history of the Mount Vernon Chess Team dates back to the early 2000s when the group had to run independently for three years before they became an official school club.
Chess Team Captain Ryan Bendersky, a junior at MVTHS, said that he has been a member of the team since his freshman year.
“It was one of the first things I was really interested in doing, mainly because I have been playing chess from a young age,” Bendersky said. “My father came from Russia and taught me how to play. Back in Russia they went to chess school. He kept that with him and transferred it on to me.”
Bendersky said that the season has been going well.
“I am really happy with our performance in the state qualifiers, because we don’t have the team usually all at once, but for this meet we had everyone get together for our first in-person tournament,” Bendersky said. “I think that really motivates them, in-person chess is a lot more motivating.”
Bendersky said his main expectation for state is to have fun, meet with people and see how well they can do.
WELLCO President Ryan T. Wellmaker was also present at the team’s last practice before state and presented a check to help with state travel arrangements. He said WELLCO wants to continue to promote clubs like this in the community. Wellmaker explained that he was on the chess team when it was first starting out.
“It was a great outlet for me when I was in high school. It was something to do during the lunch hours, after school,” Wellmaker said. “As it progressed we became more formalized and the boards that they are using now, I remember the fundraiser that we had for that. We did everything from selling candy bars to collecting ink cartridges. It was really fun. … The club was really great for me and the people that were in the club.”
Wellmaker said that this donation aligns with WELLCO’s mission of reinvesting back into the communities they invest in.
Bumpas said it’s great to see chess alumni like Wellmaker donate back to the club they were part of as he gave his thoughts on helping to coach the team.
“I am just glad to be associated with them, they are a good group,” Bumpas said.
England encouraged any students interested in joining the chess team to reach out.
“I want every kid to be able to cherish this experience for the rest of their life, be able to look back and say I went to state on the chess team and be able to do that when they are 85 or 90 to tell their grandkids,” England said.