Chess tournaments hone scholarship, character

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Chess tournaments hone scholarship, characterPutting the ‘extra’ in ordinary: a celebration of the unique, the unexpected and the exemplary people and experiences in the Indian Wells Valley. This installment continues a series that will explore some of the hidden delights in our high-desert hometown.

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“Chess is possibly the most effective learning tool there is. The only problem with it is that it’s fun. So people look at it like a game and think, ‘How can students be learning?’”

Dwight Morgan shared this sentiment for an article published by the News Review in 2012. However, he has been championing that philosophy in Ridgecrest for five decades now.

The benefits of chess have been touted by countless experts and have been the subject of endless studies. Even moderate exposure to the game can enhance problem-solving skills, critical thinking, creativity and memory.

But for this spotlight on the extraordinary, it’s difficult to separate the eminence of the sport from the personal dedication of Mr. Morgan.

I first met him in the mid 1990s, when he was already a seasoned teacher with the Sierra Sands Unified School District. He was also the advisor for the lunchtime Naturalists Club, and I had stumbled into his room at Burroughs High School (during the peak of my hippie phase) in search of my tribe.

I don’t even remember if I met or spoke with other nature lovers that day. I only remember Mr. Morgan’s invitation to play, my initial refusal, and his patient insistence that anyone can learn the game.

I continued to show up Wednesdays at lunch — not because I had any talent but because I liked Mr. Morgan’s deep and thoughtful approach to life.

It strikes me now, a quarter century later, that part of what I liked was the way he spoke to students as people, not as teenagers. (It also turns out this fortunate brush with chess would come in handy to me later in life, as it was the avenue by which I got acquainted with my soulmate. But that’s another story for another day ...)

I caught up with Mr. Morgan several years after graduating and after he had earned his master’s degree (with a focus on conflict resolution through chess, I believe). He was serving as a counselor at multiple elementary school sites, where he used chess as a means of outreach. After his retirement, he channeled his passion for the sport with renewed energy into the Scholastic Chess Tournaments, staged each month at rotating school campuses.

As soon as my own children were old enough, participation became part of our family routine.

For the athletically uninclined, these tournaments were a blessing. Playing chess under the wise mentorship of Mr. Morgan and his devoted volunteers didn’t just hone the academic performance of our children, it shaped their character in the same ways typically learned in a team environment — building confidence, concentration, good sportsmanship and the ability to learn from failure.

Though our family, like many, eventually started cultivating other interests that kept us from the tournaments, I have watched through the oblique lens of Facebook as Mr. Morgan continued to offer these monthly opportunities to students from public, private and homeschool environments.

I often wonder about the George Bailey effect — how the humble, unassuming men and women who quietly give without asking for credit or attention can often have incredible impacts on community without our ever knowing in this lifetime. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart’s character gets a miraculous validation of his life’s work, but I’m not sure that happens in real life.

But think of this: in this tiny little town of ours, members of the Nakamura and Peterson families (just the ones I know of) — who played chess with Mr. Morgan, as well as others in our community — went on to win global distinction in the sport.

Mr. Morgan told me that Patrick Rindt (prodigy pianist-composer) and Dillon Bling (whose own potential is sometimes eclipsed by his golf-prodigy older brother) and Geoffrey Brown (whose musical and scholastic aptitude is still developing at age 14) all showed similar talent.

I think about how great it is that these bright local students were given an opportunity to flourish in this sport. But the truth is that every student who played against these budding brainiacs were stretched and challenged and given a similar opportunity to grow — even if none of them ultimately pursued chess as a life goal.

Perhaps the extent of Mr. Morgan’s legacy, and others in our community who have made similar contributions, will never be fully known. But as a mother, I am thankful for the investment and consequential rewards reaped by my children.

By the way — the last tournament of the academic year will be held Monday, Feb. 17, at Las Flores Elementary School.

Registration begins at 8:15 a.m., with tournament rounds beginning at 9 a.m. Awards in four categories will be distributed at the end, around noon.

Story First Published: 2020-02-14