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Open game: Chess club leader teaches strategies of life, pastime

Adam Arslan and Damien Stead play a game of chess
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Adam Arslan, 15, and Damien Stead, 21, play a game. Andrew Thayer/Daily

City Chess Club

Cliff Campbell's City Chess Club is set up on the Loudoun Street Pedestrian Mall in Winchester on Fridays and Saturdays from about 2 p.m. to dark. They are located near where Boscawen Street crosses the mall, across from The Bright Center at 9 N. Loudoun St. Campbell also can be reached at 818-458-4744.

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Alex Smallwood studies a chess situation
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Alex Smallwood studies a chess situation with Campbell. Campbell teaches chess every weekend in Winchester, and uses a large board to challenge people to look for the solution to various chess problems. Andrew Thayer/Daily

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Cliff Campbell organizes tournaments every Saturday at the Loudoun Street Mall in Winchester. Campbell teaches that you should be patient, study the board, look for a better move and apply these techniques to life situations. Andrew Thayer/Daily

James Clark and Mike Walton play chess
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James Clark, left, and Mike Walton play chess as Cliff Campbell, standing, watches the game on the Loudoun Street Pedestrian Mall in Winchester on a recent Saturday. Andrew Thayer/Daily

People play chess
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People play chess at the Loudoun Street Pedestrian Mall in Winchester on a recent Saturday. Cliff Campbell teaches chess and organizes tournaments on many weekends. Andrew Thayer/Daily

Alex Smallwood and James Harrison play a game of chess
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Alex Smallwood, right, and James Harrison play a game of chess at the Loudoun Street Mall in Winchester on Saturday. Cliff Campbell teaches chess and organizes tournaments every Saturday. Andrew Thayer/Daily

By Laetitia Clayton -- lclayton@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Cliff Campbell has played chess all over the world, but these days you can find him holding court on the Loudoun Street Pedestrian Mall.

On Fridays and Saturdays, Cliff Campbell's City Chess Club sets up its tables and chess boards outside on the mall, near the intersection with Boscawen Street, where club members -- and anyone else who happens to pass by and wants to join in -- can play chess from about 2 p.m. to dark.

Despite the sweltering temperatures, there were about six to eight chess games being played on a recent Saturday afternoon.

"Now you lost out on taking that knight from him," Campbell tells one player as he walks up and down beside the tables, watching the various games in progress. "You're moving too fast."

"When they play too fast, they aren't seeing the better moves," he said. "For every move they make, there's a better one."

Making careful and well-thought-out decisions seems to be a familiar theme with Campbell, who started the chess club in June -- or rather, restarted it after a long hiatus.

"I used to set up on the mall in '99," he said. "I brought it back this summer."

Campbell, who has played the game for more than 50 years, said chess helps develop thinking and decision-making skills, improves the ability to concentrate and helps build self-esteem, among other things.

"It helps them start thinking before they react, instead of reacting before they think," Campbell said. "It helps with self-discipline and focus, especially when I deal with the minority. A lot don't have a man in their life."

But Campbell will share his chess knowledge with anyone who wants to learn. About 60 people play the game on any given weekend, he said. "They come from all over, and we have ages 3 to 80."

Campbell also holds chess tournaments once a month, where teams from surrounding areas and states, like Maryland, come to Winchester to play.

"It's here and it's big," Campbell said of the tournaments. "Some guys have been playing 55 years, but they can't beat these young guys."


One young man in particular can beat just about anybody around at the game, Campbell said.

Adam Arslan, a 15-year-old rising sophomore at Winchester's John Handley High School, was the champion of July's tournament. He also will be captain of Handley's chess team this year.

"I can't remember not knowing how to play chess," Adam said during a break between games.

He said his father started teaching him when he was very young, but he didn't begin playing other people until he was 12.

"Once I started beating my dad, I wanted to play other people to see if I could beat them too," Adam said. "I started playing a lot more once I realized I was good at it, and then I got better."

Adam said chess is a challenge because there are many different strategies players can use to win.

"It's not like any other game," he said. "There are so many different moves and ways the game can go."

James Harrison Jr., a 12-year-old at Daniel Morgan Middle School, is another rising chess star, Campbell said, even calling James "the best speed player in Winchester."

"He breathes chess," said James' grandmother, Ada Butler, of Winchester, who was watching her grandson play. "Chess turned his life around. Mr. Cliff has been a great inspiration in his development. He started all of this."

James said he loves to play the game, and practices just about every day.

"It's about really having fun and getting the opportunity to train your mind," he said.

Campbell said he's proud of James, not only because of how quickly he has picked up on chess, but also because his school grades have improved.

"James is on the honor roll now," Campbell said. "I'm so proud of him. He's good. He's really good."


Campbell, like Adam, began playing chess when he was a kid, with his dad as his teacher.

"My father started me off when I was 7 years old," said Campbell, 64. "We lived in New Jersey, and he would take me to Washington Square Park [in New York City]."
The park has built-in outdoor chess tables that have drawn players and spectators for years.

"That's what it's known for," he said of the park, adding that he has tried to capture a similar atmosphere by having his chess club outdoors.

Campbell said by the time he was 14, he would sneak out of the house just to go to Washington Square Park to play chess.

"[Former world chess champion] Bobby Fischer used to go there," he said. "I used to see him back in the '70s. I never played him. I was good, but I was never that good."

Campbell may not have become a world chess champion, but he has played in clubs all over the world, when he traveled as a manager of a Broadway play company. He said he is considered an advanced chess player who also is certified to teach the game, which he has been doing for about 40 years.

When he was 26, Campbell taught chess to a group of young men at a boys' home in New Jersey, and, he said, the game helped turn their lives around.

"When they're playing chess, they have to make a decision," he said. "It helps their grades come up, helps them focus."

Campbell has taught chess in Winchester Public Schools off and on since the 1990s, including the after-school enrichment programs at Garland R. Quarles, Virginia Avenue Charlotte Dehart and John Kerr elementary schools. He also coached Handley's chess team to its first win of the Mason Dixon Chess League High School Championship. The league includes teams from Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland.

"Handley won the whole thing in '06," Campbell said. "I was coach, so that was big."
Campbell said he is coaching the Handley team this year, and expects to win the league championship again.

"I know we will," he said with a smile.

Campbell also works with the Boys and Girls Club in Winchester, teaching members chess as a way to help develop self-discipline and problem-solving skills.

When Campbell moved to California to be near his daughter -- actress Tisha Campbell-Martin -- and grandsons, he said he volunteered as a chess instructor at New Village Leadership Academy in Calabasas, Calif., from 2006 to 2010. The private school -- founded by actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith -- teaches students to be leaders, Campbell said.


After Campbell returned to Winchester, where his mother is from, he began to work on bringing chess back to the city.

"When I left, everything stopped," he said. "We're trying to build it back up."

Since it's more than one person can handle, Campbell enlisted the help of Wade Clements, of Winchester.

Clements said he does the legwork in trying to grow the club, including finding somewhere they can play during the winter. For now, they are without a permanent home, he said. The club also could use some time clocks and weighted chess sets, for when the wind blows, Clements added.

For now, the club takes donations when set up on the mall, but joining and playing are free, Campbell said.

It's about having fun he said, but also about learning.

"I start from scratch," he said. "I teach terminology chess, how to really play chess."

Of course there is that thing about turning a young person's life around, too.

"This is what I do," he said. "I try to help out in the community. It's not about me, it's about the community."

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