The Right Moves 

In the world of competitive chess, Todd Andrews and Josh Gao are two of Nashville’s kings

In the world of competitive chess, Todd Andrews and Josh Gao are two of Nashville’s kings

Nashvillian Todd Andrews stands over six feet tall. He’s built like a football lineman. He’s also a prodigy, but his gifts aren’t physical. Todd is ranked seventh in the country’s 21-and-under division in chess. On July 24, he went to the U.S. Junior Championships in Tulsa, Okla., an event held for the top 10 under-21 players in the nation as ranked by the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF)—Todd placed sixth. A graduate of Hume-Fogg High School, he is certified by the USCF as a master player, and is, by his own estimate, five years away from becoming a grand master.

“Grand masters get paid in Europe just to make appearances,” says Andrews, who is forgoing college to focus on chess. He started playing in the fifth grade. By the time he was an eighth grader, he was the Tennessee high school champion. He held that title for four years straight. Every Sunday, he volunteers his time at the Nashville Chess Center to teach young kids who, for the most part, don’t come up to his waist.

One of those kids is Josh Gao, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Meigs Magnet School. Josh’s father, who works in the science department of Vanderbilt University, taught him how to play chess when he was almost four. By the time he was seven, he was beating his dad regularly. When asked if his dad is a good player, Gao simply responds, “Not as good as I am.”

Gao is right, too. He’s currently ranked 50th in his age group, 9-and-10-year-olds, nationally. He plays between one to two hours a day on most days, although he occasionally takes a day off. He’s not counting on playing chess when he grows up; he wants to be a computer programmer.

Andrews and Gao didn’t get as good as they are by themselves. The idea of a chess prodigy who instantly becomes one of the best in the nation upon glancing at a board for the first time is a myth, according to Chris Prosser, a Metro teacher who volunteers at the Nashville Chess Center. “That just doesn’t happen,” Prosser says. “They get better by studying, practicing, and playing in tournaments.” Both Andrews and Gao have been instructed at the Center, now in its fifth year at its current location at 2911 Belmont Boulevard. Before that, it existed primarily at Bellevue Middle School. Andrews now teaches at the center. Its mission, according to Prosser, is “to further scholastic chess and to educate people of its benefits.”

Sparked in no small part by the film Searching for Bobby Fischer (the movie’s poster hangs on the Chess Center’s wall like a family portrait), the scholastic chess movement is a rapidly growing phenomenon across the country. Last year, 500 students in Middle Tennessee alone were involved with scholastic chess tournaments. The Nashville Chess Center sponsored 24 programs in 2000 and is a driving force behind Tennessee’s status as a top state for scholastic chess.

“There are so many benefits that chess has for children,” Prosser says. “There’s a stack of material that shows chess improves comprehension, test scores, grades, attitude, self-esteem, everything that you can think of.”

The stated goal of the Nashville Chess Center is to have a program at every school in the Middle Tennessee area. The programs, all nonprofit, are focused on lower-income areas where test scores tend to be lower than average. This distinction is unique nationally among other chess programs, which are typically directed at private schools.

In the meantime, Prosser has his talented charges at the center to attend to, most notably Gao. “By the time Josh reaches high school, he will be one of the top players in the nation. He and I are about on the same level in terms of skill. I win about half the time, which is not good, because I’m 36 and he’s 11. He really is a phenomenon.”

The center offers lessons and activities every Sunday from 1-4 p.m. just for kids. Visitors are always welcome, and the program costs just $25 a year. “You couldn’t find a day care that costs less than that,” says one parent at the center.

“If I were to tell this crowd of kids to sit down right now and not make a lot of noise—they would think I was crazy,” Prosser says. “But if I tell them we’re about to play a tournament, they’ll sit down, be quiet, and think. After that, all you can hear are people thinking and the moving of chess pieces.”

For more information on the Nashville Chess Center, call 292-7341. Or e-mail Prosser himself at regionIII@aol.com.

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