It’s 7 p.m. on a Wednesday at the Whataburger on Trimmier Road. The chatter among the customers and staff fills the restaurant but that doesn’t bother a small group of men quietly seated at tables in a corner.
Some wear baseball caps with wisps of gray hair peeking out at the collar and sides. Their heads are slightly bowed and eyes focused downward on — chess boards. Cheeseburgers and chess? Well, then it’s the weekly Killeen Chess Club.
“Pawn to King four” was Frank Adams’ first move playing a match with Jason Tran, another member. Adams is an expert player, but not a master, and he has kept the club going for about 15 years, which is an off-shoot of the Fort Hood Chess Club.
Back in the 1980s and ’90s, the club was an affiliate of the United States Chess Federation and some members played in rated tournaments earning points toward a classification, like a master. But everything changed after 9/11.
“When Fort Hood sent its troops to fight in the first Iraq War, the Fort Hood Chess Club dissolved, leaving almost no chess players,” he said.
Adams and the few remaining players regrouped as the Killeen Chess Club, but couldn’t maintain its USCF status. With Fort Hood’s gates no longer open to all traffic, they also had to find a new spot for their matches — the old Whataburger in front of the Kmart store on Fort Hood Street.
The club stayed there until the restaurant relocated to its current location on Trimmier Road near the H-E-B. And then the club moved too.
“The Whataburger management welcomes us to play here, and the customers see us playing, which makes them curious about the game,” he said.
Chess players of all levels, beginners to experts and ages, are encouraged to stop by, said Adams.
“If they don’t know how to play, we’ll teach them,” he said. There are no dues or elected officers, and players can come and go at their convenience.
“I’ve got you right where I want you,” insisted Stephen Mccourt, moving his rook.
“Oh, no you don’t,” countered his opponent Dan Veatch, then looking at the board. “Wait a minute, maybe you do,” as the men laughed.
Veatch and Mccourt are chess players with at least 30 years experience each, and longtime club members. They see the value of the game going beyond the chess board — it’s a learning tool.
“Studies show that kids perform better in math and science when they are playing chess,” said Veatch.
Nodding in agreement, McCourt said he can judge a person’s intelligence by how he, or she, plays.
“I gain a lot of respect for people because I learn so much about them that I might not know otherwise,” he said.
In another game, Phillip Creel and Alby Lawrence pondered every move.
“There is no place to hide your moves, because everything is out in the open, and I like that,” said Creel, a player for 49 years.
Lawrence has more than 50 years experience and enjoys the weekly fellowship. “Chess is a high, but what makes it more enjoyable are the other players,” he said.
As night deepens, the players get lost in what they call the chess dimension when hours melt together. Most matches end by 11 p.m. but some games have lasted until 2 a.m.
Everyone has a reason for playing and Jason Tran, a player for 30 years, said he likes the mental contest of the game.
“I like to solve puzzles and chess is the ultimate puzzle challenge,” Tran said.
It is the beauty of the game that still captivates Adams, who started playing chess when he was in high school.
“I don’t play just to win,” Adams said. “I play for a good position and when I learn a new combination or move, that’s exciting for me.”