Gilbert’s chess community will have a chance to shine this Saturday when schoolchildren from across the state gather at Greenfield Junior High School for grade-level championships.
The state tournament will be the latest of many chess extravaganzas in Gilbert since the U.S. Chess Federation named the town “best in the nation” for chess in 1999. But all is not well with the chess superpower.
Some chess parents and coaches in the Gilbert Unified School District want nothing to do with Saturday’s event. More specifically, they want nothing to do with the event’s organizers — a group of parent volunteers concentrated at one school who took control of the community chess association in May 2005 following tense annual board elections.
Since then, the town’s chess factions have quarreled like the black and white armies on a game board.
“It’s no different than soccer or Little League or any other sport,” said Lynn Schucker, an association volunteer who helped bring Saturday’s event to Gilbert. “Politics are everywhere.”
During the Arizona Scholastic State Chess Championship last April at Gilbert High School, feuding Gilbert parents argued about everything from the display of banners to the proper place to eat snacks.
“The bickering has gone on so long,” said Jill McKeever, a Finley Farms Elementary School chess mom, former association president and chess coach at Islands Elementary School. “It’s gotten to this point now where we almost can’t talk to each other.”
The Gilbert rift started long before members of the Gilbert Parents Chess Association cast their ballots for new officers in May 2005.
Chess parents from Burk Elementary School have long done things differently than parents at other Gilbert schools.
“The philosophies of the organizations were always so different,” said Christy Veit, a chess mom at Canyon Rim Elementary School. “They didn’t get where we were coming from, and we didn’t get where they were coming from.”
The Burk club, which has won four consecutive state championships, trains with its own coach and focuses on winning. Other Gilbert schools take a more casual approach to chess.
Their coaches juggle eight or more clubs at the same time and root for all their players to do well at tournaments — even when the teams compete against each other. That has never made sense to the Burk parents.
“We don’t see football, baseball or basketball coaches floating across schools in this district coaching at multiple schools,” former Burk parent Lisa Haisley wrote in an e-mail. “I don’t think chess should either.”
The culture clash kept Burk parents away from Gilbert association tournaments for years. Burk parent Kent Maneth said the absence had to do with a lack of serious competition in Gilbert — not chess politics.
“There was no one to play,” Maneth said.
Things started to change about 2004, when the Gilbert district shifted control of its afterschool chess clubs away from the parents association and to the Community Education Department. The association continued running monthly tournaments like a district booster, and the Burk team eventually returned.
“Burk’s parents came out in force to the GPCA because we want to elevate chess in Gilbert,” Haisley wrote. “We want to give all the parents at other schools — who kept after us to help them have what we enjoyed at Burk — that chance.”
The desire to spread the Burk philosophy set up a power struggle that came to a head in May 2005.
What happened during election night at New Hope Community Church depends on whom you ask.
Some chess parents say Burk families flooded the meeting. When they realized they didn’t have enough votes to win, they stepped outside and called more friends on their cell phones.
Maneth, who earned a board position that night and now serves as president, said allegations that Burk staged a hostile takeover are false. He said Burk parents won the election because they offered the best vision for the future of Gilbert chess.
“The parents recognized that,” he said. “And that’s why we were elected.”
Overall, 99 parents voted. Maneth said records show only 20 ballots came from Burk parents, but 30 more came from other families affiliated with Burk’s coach.
Voting was so close that ballots had to be counted twice.
In the end, Burk parents emerged with control of the association they had previously shunned. And parents who had spent years building the association suddenly wanted nothing to do with it. The Gilbert chess world had turned upside down.
Some parents and coaches severed ties with the association immediately.
“It went against our philosophy to have the whole board come from the same group,” said Veit, the sister of Angie Sherwood, who coaches Canyon Rim, Meridian and Neely elementary schools.
But outgoing president McKeever continued working with the new leaders and even directed an association tournament in November 2005. Then she learned of the board’s plans to dissolve the bylaws, cancel all future elections and change the association’s name. That was the last straw for her. On Jan. 21, she crashed one of the group’s tournaments with Veit and Sherwood and demanded answers.
TOSSING THE BYLAWS
Maneth said his group discovered after the 2005 election that the association had never incorporated as an Arizona nonprofit — something that should have happened after the school district cut its affiliation with the group in 2004. As things stood, he said, board members faced personal tax and insurance liabililty.
So the board dissolved the association on Jan. 6 and reorganized as the Gilbert Parents Chess Alliance. Maneth said the name change was necessary to obtain tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, which does not like the term “association.” “Nothing with regard to the manner in which the GPCA supports scholastic chess has changed,” Maneth wrote in a recent e-mail.
Although the association’s bylaws specified that the group could only be dissolved by a two-thirds majority vote of active members, Maneth said the requirement was not binding because the bylaws had never been filed anywhere except with the school district. McKeever bristles at that notion.
“The bylaws were binding when they all stood there and voted in the election,” she said.
RIVAL CHESS GROUP
Many parents now take their children to tournaments organized by a rival group called SMARTChess. McKeever and three other Gilbert chess coaches started the nonprofit organization this summer.
One SMARTChess founder is Robert Tanner, the Gilbert coach who resigned this month from the U.S. Chess Federation executive board following an ethics reprimand. Tanner was disciplined in November following allegations that he manipulated tournament results in the early 1990s to boost his chess rating.
Other founders include Gilbert coaches Angie and Tony Sherwood. Together, the group oversees teams at 17 schools and draws an average of 97 players to tournaments.
Despite the feuding, some in the community remain optimistic about the future of Gilbert chess.
“I see this as a natural growth process,” said Cindy Hawkinson, who moved to Gilbert 10 years ago and quickly got involved as a chess coach. “I don’t see this as the Hatfields and the McCoys.”
Hawkinson said Gilbert is no longer a small town and has room for more than one thriving chess organization. All it will take, she said, is proper perspective.
“Loyalties are at stake; egos are at stake,” Hawkinson said. “But when you get past that, it’s just a board game.”
Gilbert Parents Chess Alliance: www.gpcachess.org
What: Gilbert Parents Chess Alliance hosts the 2007 Arizona State Grades Championship
When: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Greenfield Junior High School, 101 S. Greenfield Road
Information: (480) 216-8025 or email@example.com