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Bishop's gambit: Elementary school custodian Dave Bishop teaches kids chess

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

This weekend Baltimore hosts the 2023 National Elementary School Chess Championships, and this year the team from George B. Weatherbee Elementary School in Hampton, Maine, is getting special attention. That's because it's led by David Bishop. He's the school's part-time chess coach and full-time custodian, a job he picked up after early retirement from his previous job in telecommunications.

DAVID BISHOP: I stumbled upon the custodial job through a classmate who I graduated with, and I decided to give it a try, and that's when I discovered the chess club.

PFEIFFER: Not surprisingly, Bishop's story has drawn parallels to the hit show "The Queen's Gambit." We got a chance today to speak with Bishop and one of his chess students, 11-year-old Avery Zhang, who was catching a flight, so it's a little noisy when Avery speaks. Here's Bishop explaining what drew him to coaching chess.

BISHOP: Well, it's the next step to being competitive. You're going from just a recreational or intramural club to actually being a competitive team. It's a very unique sport. There's a wide range of strength of players, so you're able to match up each player a lot better versus, say, basketball, when you just got one school against another school.

PFEIFFER: And, Avery, you are on Mr. Bishop's chess team. Why did you want to play chess?

AVERY ZHANG: Because my brother started playing, and I saw him play for a while, and I started getting interested.

PFEIFFER: What is Mr. Bishop like as a teacher?

AVERY: He coaches us without even getting paid, so I think it's really amazing.

PFEIFFER: And tell me - describe him as a teacher. Like, how does he try to make you understand how to play and good at strategy?

AVERY: He motivates lots of kids to, like, join and have a chance to become a state champion.

PFEIFFER: Mr. Bishop, what do you like about coaching the kids?

BISHOP: What I like about coaching the kids is seeing them go from, say, the K-2 level to where Avery is right now. Avery, for instance, has grown so much that his rating strength is higher than any player over at the middle school. He has a passion for it, and that just - it just proves my theory. If you really like something and stick with it, you're going to get better. And he's really taken it to the next level. He studies at night when he comes home. I see him as, like, a 1500 player by his sophomore year.

PFEIFFER: So Mr. Bishop said that you almost treat chess like homework. Do you actually go home at night and study chess?

AVERY: I usually play at least two hours a night.

PFEIFFER: So you have a big - another tournament coming up. Avery, how are you feeling about that?

AVERY: I'm anxious because I know the players are going to be - some of them are going to be a lot better than me.

PFEIFFER: And so how are you preparing so that you won't be anxious during the tournament?

AVERY: I've been playing more at home.

PFEIFFER: Practice makes perfect - that kind of thing.

AVERY: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: Mr. Bishop, a big-picture question to end on - when you're teaching them chess, what are the skills you feel like you're teaching them? Is it more than just the immediate game?

BISHOP: Well, it is. There's a lot of metaphors with the sport of chess. It's that hard work really does pay off. If you study like Avery and you love what you do, you get a lot better, and you stick with it.

PFEIFFER: David Bishop, thank you for your time, and good luck at the tournament.

BISHOP: Oh, thank you.

PFEIFFER: And, Avery, thanks to you, too. We hope you get on your flight OK, and good luck to you, too.

AVERY: Yeah. Thank you.

PFEIFFER: That was David Bishop, who coaches the chess team at George B. Weatherbee Elementary School in Hampton, Maine, and also Avery Zhang, who is a member of that team.

(SOUNDBITE OF WU-TANG CLAN SONG, "TRIUMPH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gabriel J. Sánchez
Gabriel J. Sánchez is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. Sánchez identifies stories, books guests, and produces what you hear on air. Sánchez also directs All Things Considered on Saturdays and Sundays.
Tinbete Ermyas
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
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