SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) – The game of chess is played around the world, and the oldest, continuously running chess club in the U.S. is in downtown San Francisco at the Mechanics Institute. The institute is a kind of cultural center that goes back to 1854. 

Chess is one of its big draws, so the institute is now ramping up efforts to diversify the people who play, saying there are so many benefits for everybody. 

This spring, some 300 children of all ages and backgrounds from all corners of the Bay Area showed up to compete in the institute’s scholarship chess tournament. 

Some of those same young people are part of the institute’s chess school outreach. It includes 22 weekly classes in 16 private and public schools in San Francisco. In low-income communities, classes are free – all aimed at sparking new interest in the age-old game. 

“Our school outreach programs are really important to help provide interesting and new skillsets to the kids in our classes, things like patience, understanding strategy, being able to talk and analyze your game,” said Alyssa Stone, who is in charge of community engagement. “And it’s super interesting to see them and their wheels turning about how they play.”

Danny Cao is a Mechanics Institute chess instructor. He played basketball as a kid and says it took him years to beat his mother’s boyfriend. Kids can be competitive in chess with adults much more quickly. 

“Chess is one of the ways that a child can, like language, learn something very quickly and measure themselves up to an adult very quickly,” Cao said. 

The hope is that one day all of the young kids in the school programs will wind up at the historic Mechanics Institute where they have weekly chess tournaments. 

One of the activities they play is “Blitz,” or fast chess. Each player has three minutes on the clock. One game is six minutes. Classical or slow chess can last hours.

“Chess is a universal game,” Stone said. “You don’t need to speak the same language. You don’t need to have come from the same places. Everybody has the same rules and knows how to play chess together.”

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That’s why the Mechanics Institute believes chess is an easy sell when it comes to its efforts to diversify the people who play the game. Because as you look around the room where the kids are playing, you can see there is a way to go.

“We’re really trying hard to make sure women and girls and people who are not often seen in the game of chess have a place here,” Stone said. 

There are all types of programs at the Mechanics Institute, and they are open to the public, whether you are a member or not. Every Tuesday evening, the chess tournaments are open to all. And in addition to the school chess program, there are women and girls chess classes on Sundays – all in an effort to diversify.