Local man on mission to teach kids ‘real game’ of chess

John Martinez explains a chess move to one of the members of the chess club he coaches. The club, an extension of Martinez’s love of the game, meets monthly at the Huntington Branch of the Huntington City-Township Public Library.
John Martinez explains a chess move to one of the members of the chess club he coaches. The club, an extension of Martinez’s love of the game, meets monthly at the Huntington Branch of the Huntington City-Township Public Library. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Feb. 18, 2016.

John Martinez has the pawns, the rooks, the bishops and the royal couple in place on the tables, ready to roll.

But as his players arrive, he quickly realizes there aren’t enough places at the boards.

No problem. He grabs a few long green bags, slides out rolled-up chess boards and covers another table.

He matches up the players, and the first games begin.

The competitors are young, most no older than middle school. But they’re all older than Martinez was when he started to play.

“I’ve been playing chess since I was a toddler,” he says.

He doesn’t remember exactly who taught him to play; he probably just picked it up from his two older brothers, he says.

“I remember I knew how to play when I was — well, before third grade; probably kindergarten,” he says.

It was just part of growing up, he says.

He played in the chess club at Riverview Middle School, and then at Huntington North High School.

“When you were younger back then, kids played games more,” he says. “You know, real games.”

Now he’s on a mission to get more kids playing “real games” — specifically chess.

“He wants to teach the whole world how to play chess,” says Jan Perkins, a staffer at the Huntington Branch of the Huntington City-Township Public Library, where Martinez sets up shop once a month.

“I’ve seen him teach people to play chess in five or 10 minutes,” she says. “He can do it.”

On a recent February night, a couple of dozen young players showed up to hone their skills. Most of them were boys; both Martinez and Perkins say girls, for whatever reason, don’t seem to have an interest in chess.

The handful of girls who do come to the monthly chess club meetings at the library, though, compete on the same level as the boys, Martinez says, and he’d like to see more girls in the mix.

In hopes of drawing in more players, Martinez has moved his chess club meetings out of the library’s meeting room and into an area just off the library’s main traffic lane, hoping to pique the interest of some curious passersby.

There’s also food — Martinez’s wife, Audra, supplies the players with treats.

“She’s an awesome cook,” Martinez says.

Chess club member Nick Shockley, a dessert bar at his side, says he’s been playing for five or six months.

“I’ve learned actually how to play,” Shockley marvels.

The library players, just as Martinez did, are picking up  new skills with each game.

“There were some refinements, some rules I didn’t understand when I was a kid,” Martinez says. “I knew the basics, and then I learned the strategies.”

With his young chess club members, Martinez starts off by teaching them what the pieces are called and what they can do.

“That’s half the game, to learn the names of the pieces,” he says.

“I know what the pieces do now,” says 9-year-old chess club member Ezekiel Alsman, who had just finished up a game.

“I did OK,” he says of his game.

Martinez started the chess club at the library last June, taking over from his former high school chess coach, Jack Oberholtzer.

Oberholtzer had been sponsoring periodic chess tournaments, preceded by practice sessions. When he was ready to give it up, he tapped Martinez and Kevin McCracken, who had also been one of Oberholtzer’s high school chess players, to carry on.

“Kevin is really good,” Martinez says. “He went to state once in high school.”
Martinez and McCracken — who have played together so often that each can predict the other’s moves — decided to expand the chess program from just tournaments to a club that would meet monthly.

When McCracken’s work-at-home job turned into a work-in-Michigan job, Martinez shouldered the responsibility. Martinez — known in the business world as “The Batman” — owns a bat removal service, which gives him some flexibility in keeping the chess club going.

Oberholtzer’s high school chess team regularly competed in out-of-town tournaments, and Martinez says while it would be nice to do the same with his library club, he worries that transportation could be a problem.

Martinez sometimes gets a chance to sit down and play a game with one of his club members. And occasionally he comes out on the losing end.

“I’ve lost a couple of times to them,” he says. “I tell them, ‘I’m not that great. I know how to play. I know what you should do to play well.’
 “I just want to reinforce that they can play chess.”

The chess club meets on the second Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. at the Huntington Branch of the Huntington City-Township Public Library.