Fairfield chess clubs named top in CT for how they creatively adapted to pandemic

FAIRFIELD — Matt Tuccillo remembers being at the chess state championships in 2020, the week before the pandemic closed schools, restaurants and many other facets of normal life.

Tuccillo, the co-director of the Ludlowe Middle School Chess club and the former director of the Riverfield elementary chess club, said the pandemic left the chess programs’ leaders scrambling to find out how to put together an end-of-year event for the students.

What he and the other advisers created resulted in the two, interconnected clubs being named the 2021 Scholastic Chess Clubs of the Year by the Connecticut State Chess Association. Tuccillo said the clubs got the award for their “robust activity levels, creative programming, and perseverance in the face of the COVID pandemic.”

“In 2020-2021, which was last school year, we knew we were going to be remote the whole time, and we just went in whole hog on the tech,” he said.

Getting recognized for those efforts by the Connecticut State Chess Association was validation that the two clubs are some of the best in the state, Tuccillo said.

Tuccillo said the two clubs used a bunch of different technology to facilitate the clubs’ continued activity.

In a usual day, students would arrive, check the matchup sheet on the wall and find their partner to start playing, Tuccillo said. This past year, the organizers used a Google sheet to access and log that information.

Then, Tuccillo said, the clubs used chess.com, a website that allowed the groups to create closed-off, virtual chess clubs. His co-director Michael Bartsch created challenge links that would direct the players to the right opponent under the correct rule set.

“The trick was the parents, or the kids if they were older, had to coordinate a time when they were both online, and one or the other would click the right link... boom — game on,” he said.

Tuccillo said the groups would also use Zoom so the clubs could have “some modicum of regular meetings.” Directors also held instructional and help sessions that way, save the meetings and put them on Youtube.

He would also pre-record lessons and upload them to YouTube for students. He said the channel is unlisted, so only people with the link could access it.

Beginners were sent a set of seven links with instructions on when to watch them.

“For instruction that was more advanced, where Michael and I were Zooming together with the kids watching, we’d clean (the videos) up, put a cool little thumbnail on it and upload it,” Tuccillo said.

The club at Riverfield and the one at Ludlowe Middle had sort of an inverse reaction to the temporary digitization of the game, Tuccillo said.

While Riverfield had historically been the bigger of the two clubs with around 100 members annually, it dropped down to about 65, while Ludlowe continued to grow.

“The omissions were across the board,” he said of Riverfield. “We had some elite players not do it. The screen thing was not working for them. It’s also harder on parents that age to schedule everything and to make sure the tech was working. It was just more challenging.”

Still, Tuccillo thinks the Riverfield group will be back up to its normal enrollment numbers within a couple years. He noted chess has been a big part of the school’s culture, with about one-third of students participating in the club in a normal year.

“Everyone is excited it’s back,” he said.

Tuccillo said he revived the Ludlowe program in 2017, and that it has doubled every year since. Many of those students came out of the Riverfield program. When the pandemic hit, he said, it went from 20 to 40 or so members.

“It was something to do,” he said. “It was something safe. It was something remote. Kids at that school are good with self scheduling. They were fine to log in together. They were a little bit more tech savvy.”

He said the Ludlowe group has gone to a hybrid model permanently after seeing how well it worked.

While the Fairfield clubs took the steps to adapt, Tuccillo said, most peer clubs around the state did not even start.

Tuccillo said the programs continuing to operate during the pandemic was a boon to the students in a year where many programs were closed down and there was much uncertainty about when there would be some return to normalcy.

“It was enormously beneficial to have a reliable, familiar thing that these kids are quite good at,” he said.

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com