Newman Center adds a new spin to an old game

Ben Wolford

Frank Smith, retired professor of mathematics, contemplates his next move during a game of life-size chess at the Newman Center last Sunday. The concrete board is a permanent fixture behind the building and players use two-foot tall plastic pieces. ABIGAI

Credit: DKS Editors

John Roebke had his eye on his black knight and the encroaching white pieces around it. After a few moments in contemplation, Roebke, music director of the Newman Center University Parish, walked across the chess board, picked up the two-foot plastic horse by the ears and retreated.

Roebke was one of a stream of parishioners ready to test their skills Sunday afternoon on a life-sized chess board that saw its first action two weeks earlier.

“It’s epic,” he said. “You have to look around. You can’t take in the whole chess board at a glance.”

The 13 ft. square slab of white and green stained concrete isn’t your grandfather’s tabletop chess board with 32 thumb-sized pieces. The proportions add a new twist to the game, Roebke said.

“Each move seems more significant when it takes two hands to move a chess piece,” Roebke said.

The idea to put in a life-sized chess board behind the church came all the way from Insbruck, Austria, where Roebke and the Rev. John Jerek were vacationing. They were strolling through the city’s public gardens when they came across a big checkered board.

“I thought, ‘How enjoyable would this be?'” Jerek said.

A year later they put the idea to work and called on Ralph Esposito, a member of the parish, to have his concrete company install the board. It was Esposito Concrete’s first chess board job, and it took five days to complete.

“It took two days just to stain it,” Esposito said. “We were down on our hands and knees with sponge brushes.”

Jerek is happy with the investment.

“It’s not only enjoyable for the competitors, it’s enjoyable for observers,” he said. “People want to learn the game of chess. Too many people think that it’s a game for eggheads and old men in parks.”

He thinks his new chess set will ease the stigma.

Esposito Concrete will install a life-size chess board in your backyard for about $4,000. The Newman Center, however, is willing to share its toy. The pieces are locked in a shed, but Jerek said, “We’ll be very good about (public accessibility).”

If you don’t want to bother a staff member for a key, anyone is welcome to bring 32 patient friends.

Contact news correspondent Ben Wolford at [email protected].