Partial to Home: Spreading the gospel of chess


Chess master Isaac Miller contemplates a move against Alice Calvert, a member of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science chess club. Thursday night Miller played 15 games simultaneously with members of the club.

Chess master Isaac Miller contemplates a move against Alice Calvert, a member of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science chess club. Thursday night Miller played 15 games simultaneously with members of the club. Photo by: Birney Imes/Dispatch Staff


Birney Imes



Isaac Miller wakes up thinking about different things than most of us. To wit: Friday morning he woke replaying in his mind a game of chess he played the night before with his brother. 


Actually, Miller played 15 games of chess the night before. All at the same time. The game he played with Nathan isn't the only chess game in Miller's brain; he has analyzed thousands and thousands of games: Morphy vs. Allies, 1858; Byrne vs. Fisher, 1956; Karpov vs. Kasparov, 1985, and on and on. 


He's been studying and thinking about chess since he was 5 when his father gave him a chess set and book of the best games of the Russian master Alexander Alekhine. When little brother came along two years later, Issac had a sparing partner. Nathan has yet to beat his big bother. 


Apparently, sibling rivalry has been confined to the chessboard. "Nathan was my best friend then and he's my best friend now," Issac said. 


Earlier this year Nathan, a colonel in the Air Force, retired and bought a historic home on Columbus' Southside. Over the same period, big brother, who had been practicing family law in Virginia Beach, Virginia, for 18 years, gave up his law practice for a new life in his brother's adopted hometown. 


Issac, 46, says he's had enough of law for now. He's hoping to become something of a Johnny Appleseed of chess locally. He gives individual lessons, but he would love to see chess programs in area schools. 


He knows how chess can change a kid's life. When he was 10, his family moved from Santa Barbara, California, to Mobile, Alabama, where eight schools had formed a chess league. There were matches once a month. 


At 13 he played in his first tournament. Two years later he was the top-rated high-school player in the state of Alabama, a position he held until he graduated from high school. 


His senior year he was one of eight kids across the country selected for special instruction by grand masters at New York City's prestigious Marshall Chess Club. 


Miller says during high school, he spent a minimum of 20 hours a week studying chess. He cites a good work ethic, memory capacity and, perhaps most importantly, the desire to win as necessary ingredients for a successful player. 


"The best chess players are not nerds," says Miller." "They are basically athletes." To stay alert for the five to six hours a championship game between grand masters can last, mental and physical preparation, along with attention to proper diet are necessary. 


Even at less exalted levels, chess can have a multitude of benefits for kids, says Miller. The game requires problem solving, critical thinking and it builds self-confidence and self-reliance. Miller told me chess has helped him develop his memory, and then, by way of example, he recited a dizzying array of lists he's memorized. 


Chess is a way for kids to channel their competitive nature into a non-violent activity, says Miller. "Chess is a healthy way to fight and wage war." 


Thursday evening 15 young warriors (actually one of the warriors was Isaac's 44-year-old brother Nathan) of Scott Curtis' chess club at MSMS stared intently at their boards. Isaac has been working with the club since Labor Day. They have hour and a half sessions on Sunday afternoons. 


On this night Isaac looks more like a lawyer about to plead a case. He's wearing a gray suit, a purple dress shirt and dress shoes. He will walk around the room and make an opening move. The kids are sitting at desks in a U-shaped arrangement. Some of the students have notebooks and pencils to record the moves of the game for later study. 


Play begins at 5:35. After he's made the circuit, Miller returns to the first player who will make his move. He responds and moves to the next player. 


Twelve minutes after his opening foray, Miller bumps fists with his first victim. Others fall one by one. Finally, there are four, brother Nathan among them. 


Then, miraculously, Isaac concedes defeat to Evan Stegall of Tupelo. He goes on to dispatch the other remaining players. 


"You've done something I've not been able to do in 44 years," Nathan said to Stegall, who has been playing chess for only a year. 


Later Isaac, who says out of thousands of rated games he played since 1991, he's only lost 85, said he had been ahead of Stegall two pieces and let his guard down. "He played well. He came at me," Isaac said. 


"These kids are really improving," Miller says about his MSMS charges. "I'd love to see four or five schools here have clubs." 


Scott Curtis has seen what chess has done for his MSMS kids, who have won the state scholastic chess tournament the past two years. The school will host a tournament in January. 


"It's good for the mind," says Curtis. "In a chess club you make friends, get to know some new people and sometimes get to travel." 


Amen, echoes chess master Isaac Miller. And, if I may put words into his mouth, "Let's have more of it." 


Birney Imes ([email protected]) is the former publisher of The Dispatch. 



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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