Oscar McNally scans the chess pieces and carefully considers his next move. One hand hovers above the board, fingers tracing various options that come to mind.
Finally, Oscar slides a bishop over a few squares and looks up at his patient opponent and friend, James Botting. The 10-year-old boys are focused, calm.
A few moves later, the game is over. James, cornered, cannot make a legal move.
“It’s a stalemate,” Oscar declares, using the technical term for a type of tie.
“You destroyed me,” James concedes, and begins setting up for another match.
Oscar and James are members of the chess club at the East End Community School in Portland, one of several new clubs in and around Maine’s largest city that are part of a surge in the game’s popularity across the state and around the globe.
In nearby Cape Elizabeth, 16-year-old Matthew Fishbein last month became the first high school student in Maine to achieve a national master’s rating. On March 8, he helped his team win its third state championship. And on Saturday, Fishbein will defend his individual scholastic title at the state championship tournament in Orono.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Andy Bryan, president of the Maine Chess Association, of Fishbein’s standing in the state and the nation.
Worldwide interest in the 1,500-year-old strategy game has spiked recently, fueled by technology, the Internet and the youthful charisma of another master – world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway, who won the title in November as an estimated 200 million to 500 million people watched on TV and online.
A handsome 23-year-old, Carlsen often takes 30 minutes to make a move, slouches nonchalantly during interviews and readily admits to reading Donald Duck to unwind. He models high fashion, plays soccer and basketball, and has appeared on “60 Minutes” and “The Colbert Report.” He connects with fans via Twitter and Facebook, and in February he launched a YouTube channel and an iPhone app, Play Magnus, so fans can test their skills and maybe win a chance to play against him live.
“He’s a poster boy for the game and he’s generating a lot of interest,” said Bryan, who is the teaching principal and longtime chess coach at the Airline Community School in Aurora, east of Bangor.
Overall membership in the U.S. Chess Federation, the organization that sanctions tournaments and rates players, increased from 80,132 players in February 2013 to 81,948 players last month, said Jean Hoffman, the federation’s executive director.
Interest in scholastic chess programs, in particular, has grown in the last decade. A record-breaking 5,337 students in kindergarten through high school attended the Supernationals last year in Nashville, making it the world’s largest chess tournament, Hoffman said.
Maine’s growth is happening at the scholastic level as well. The U.S. Federation’s Membership Recognition Program put the Maine Association of Chess Coaches and the All Saints Catholic School Chess Club in Bangor at No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, for new and renewed sign-ups last year among small-state affiliates.
They added a combined 164 members, far outstripping states such as New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, according to the March issue of Chess Life magazine.
In Portland, the club at the East End Community School is one of several that have been started recently in the city’s 10 elementary schools by the fledgling Portland Chess Academy, which now serves about 150 kids. New clubs appear to be starting regularly in southern Maine, including one that cropped up last month at Greely High School in Cumberland.
“It ebbs and flows, but all of a sudden, some clubs have sprung up,” said Bryan, the state association president.
On a recent sunny Friday afternoon, as kids streamed out of the East End elementary school ready to start their weekend, 20 chess club members stayed behind to get their game on. At the Reiche Community School, on the other side of the city, kids regularly show up an hour before school to play.
Ben Monaghan started the chess academy last year. A military veteran and marketing executive, he promotes the game as a fun, low-cost way to build kids’ character, confidence, intellectual agility and ability to focus in a world full of distractions. He’s seen it work over and over again among kids with challenges ranging from learning disabilities to chronic homelessness.
“One woman, whose son had (attention deficit disorder), was almost in tears when she came to pick him up and saw that he’d been sitting and playing chess for an hour,” Monaghan said.
He and other chess advocates see the game as a level playing field where socioeconomic and other differences can readily disappear, though it remains a largely male endeavor after grade school.
There are signs of a shift in thinking at Greely High, where the chess team started by English teacher Gregory Greenleaf has attracted five girls and two boys.
At Cape Elizabeth High, the chess team is riding a wave of success, winning its third state championship earlier this month at the University of Maine. The five-member team – Fishbein, Matthew Reale-Hatem, Wesley Parker, Colin Smith and Carter Brock – tallied 16 wins, three draws and only one loss. Several team members are set to compete in the individual state championship at UMaine on Saturday.
The team’s top player, its “first board,” is Fishbein, a sophomore who is the highest-rated player of any age in Maine and who received the official title of national master in February. With a rating of 2205 in a system that puts senior masters at 2400 and above, Fishbein is No. 21 among 16-year-old chess players nationwide, according to the federation’s website.
Fishbein started playing when he was 4 and started competing when he was 7. He won the state championship, including adults, in 2012 and 2013. For the first, he was in eighth grade and only 14, the youngest Mainer ever to win that competition, according to his father, Dan Fishbein.
In scholastic competition, Matthew Fishbein won the state individual high school championship last year as a freshman, just a few years after winning it the first time when he was in sixth grade, which made him the youngest champion ever.
He won the middle school individual state championships when he was in the seventh and eighth grades, contributing to a total of 13 individual and team scholastic title wins so far and records in a variety of local, regional and national tournaments.
Fishbein says chess is a simple game of strategy once you learn the moves. He sometimes plays two or three teammates at once, similar to “simuls,” simultaneous matches, in which one chess master takes on several challengers at the same time.
But mostly, Fishbein enjoys one-on-one competition with a willing opponent.
“Chess is just two people staring at each other over a board,” he says.
Correction: This story was updated at 2:10 p.m. on March 22, 2014 to correct the date of the state team championship.
Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: