Who is playing chess at McHenry’s Veterans Memorial Park?

Chess players using park as they search for a new home following closure of Hidden Pearl

Ozzy Flores, left, considers his next move in a game of chess against Vincent Hart on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at McHenry's Veterans Memorial Park.

Since early June, a loose coalition of chess players have been setting up their boards at McHenry’s Veterans Memorial Park.

But, as the saying goes “winter is coming,” player Jeff Varda said.

The group, which can number up to 20 people on a good night, lost its last indoor spot when the Hidden Pearl Cafe closed at the end of May.

“We were stuck with no place to go,” Varda said. A veteran chess player, Varda originated the McHenry High School chess team in the ‘90s.

They moved around the corner to the park and set up on picnic tables under the pavilion. The adjacent bathrooms are open until dusk. The pavilion’s lighting is enough to go until about 9 p.m. these days, he said.

Jeff Varda waits for his first chess opponent at McHenry's Veterans Memorial Park on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. The group of chess players is seeking in indoor space for their game nights.

The spot has worked for them. But by early October, an indoor spot in the McHenry area would be a better option, Varda said.

It has been a rough two-plus years for the players.

“When [COVID-19] hit on March 15, [2020], I was meeting with some of the kids from the chess team to start open chess at the Hidden Pearl,” Varda said. “The next day the schools closed down.”

The pandemic made playing in person impossible, he said. After the rules on public gatherings were loosened, the players regrouped at the Hidden Pearl on Green Street in McHenry. They played their games, drank coffee and ate at the downtown cafe for a few hours nearly every Tuesday night.

The cafe closed suddenly at the end of May.

The chess players have been on the move for years, but finding a location that ticks all of the boxes – fits schedules, is open late, is OK with 10 to 16 chess players taking up tables and is free – had been challenging until the Hidden Pearl came along, he said.

Past locations include Starbucks and Panera Bread locations. Way back in the day, they set up at a now-shuttered Borders bookstore.

Zach Martin, left, 19, and Jake Miller, 17, have played chess since they were young boys, learning from their fathers, and set up a board on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, at Veterans Memorial Park.

Chess in parks has a long history, Varda said. People play chess, for example, near the Art Institute of Chicago.

But Varda said he’s not as willing to sit outside when the sun is down by 5 p.m. and the cold sets in.

“I love the idea of public and outdoors, but in Illinois there are limitations at some point. We will start seeing that limitation pretty soon,” he said.

The current group is a mix of men who have coached chess at the high school level, current high school players and recent graduates.

Anyone, regardless of age or ability, is invited to join them.

“A couple people have stopped in and will sit down and play a game or two or just watch,” Jeff Coleman said.

Ozzy Flores drives over from Rockford to play in McHenry. He said he picked up the game in high school.

“I had a math teacher who would talk about the state championship tournament and how much fun it was for students to be involved with it,” Flores said.

Jeff Vada and Jeff Coleman are among the players who set up their chess game at McHenry's Veterans Memorial Park on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. The group of players is seeking an indoor spot now.

What he began to love about the game, Flores said, was the friendships made, the support system other players gave each other, and the lack of discrimination by players.

“I have had trouble finding where to fit in, but [then I was in] a room with like-minded individuals to play a game of chess,” he said.

If any space owner has a suggestion on where they can play, Vargas said to contact him at wjvarda@sbcglobal.net. Anyone who’d like to learn can join them there in the future.

Anyone interested in playing at the group’s next tournament, set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Oct. 8 at the Boone Creek Conservation Area pavilion – yes, outdoors – can contact Vargas, too.