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Gobbler Gambit Tournament reveals an interesting chess club history

Eleven chess players gathered the Saturday after Thanksgiving to battle it out at the Gobbler Gambit II, the Tri-State Chess Club’s 2nd annual tournament. Before the start of the four-round tournament, players chatted casually at the Keokuk Family Worship Center. But, once the timers started and the games began, serious thinking brought a hush to the room. Players recorded each move on score sheets. Sometimes, the participants would temporarily leave their games to check the progress of other games. And after a game ended, players would often watch and study the strategies of those players whose games had not yet finished. Each person had a one-hour time limit per game, and due to the uneven number of participants, some players had to sit out for one round.

Atharv Neema (left) plays Eric Vigil in the Gobbler Gambit II chess tournament, which was held in Keokuk on Saturday, November 30, 2019. There were 11 players who entered the tournament with Gary Blickhan of Quincy, Ill., again reigning as champion.

Even with the fierce competition, Gary Blickhan of Quincy, Ill., emerged undefeated and reigned as the champion again this year. He has not devoted as much time to chess lately because he has been more focused on Shogi Japanese chess, which is entirely different. So, he was happily surprised at his win. Blickhan enjoys the friendly competition of chess and the fellowship of playing.

Robert Reynolds of West Burlington retook the title of 2nd place this year. He has been playing in tournaments for around 44 years, the longest of the 11 participants. He has a history of winning. In 2007, Robert was even the co-champion of the Iowa State Chess Championship (sharing the title with Tim McEntee). Robert persuaded his brother John to attend the Gobbler Gambit this year. John said that Robert got him involved in chess.

The Best of Class medal winners were John Reynolds of Burlington, Tim Gregory of Quincy, Ill., Stan Felgar of Argyle, and Atharv Neema of Bettendorf.

This year, all participants were male. The ages ranged from 14 to over 65 years old. And the farthest traveler, Atharv Neeman, journeyed 123 miles to attend the event. When asked what he most enjoys about chess, the 14-year-old replied, “I like the learning aspect of it and that you have to use your brain a lot. It is fun to see how you can improve and enhance your analytical skills.”

Chess is a game of thinking and strategy for sure, and it is a game of friendship for many of these guys. Mike Monfils of Burlington said, “Chess is good for the brain and thinking skills. The Tri-State Chess Club is a good group of people, and I enjoy playing with them on Monday evenings. They are all very friendly and helpful.” Another participant, Tim Gregory, loves chess because he has the opportunity to socialize and get to know people. He said, “Chess is good for you. It’s good for the mind, and it keeps you sharp.” John Nealy Thomas of Warsaw, Ill., said, “What you put into chess is what you get out. The more you study and practice, the more often you win games.” He likes the chess club because it is a good medium for him to be with friends.

While chess gives players a chance to form new friendships, chess can also be a family affair as it is for the Vigils. Even though only Eric and his 14-year-old son Joseph made the trip from Iowa City this time, all of Eric’s four children enjoy the game.

Bob Beelman of Fort Madison directed the tournament. Over the years, he has been very involved in chess and has organized and directed many tournaments. Beelman even served as the treasurer of the Iowa State Chess Association for five years during the 90s. Arnie, one of the club’s founders, said, “Bob is a beneficial member. His high chess rating and experience as a tournament director are real assets to the club.”

Stan Felgar of Argyle credits Arnie Gatton for getting him addicted to chess in 1974. According to Stan, at that time, Arnie could play two people simultaneously and still come out the victor. Over the years, he and Arnie have enjoyed traveling to many tournaments, and they have each played over 300 tournament games. The two had talked about joining the local Keokuk chess club in the 70s and 80s. But, it disbanded before they got serious. In 1995, after some persistent urging from Arnie, the two set out to establish a new chess club. They made flyers and told all of their chess-playing friends. In February of 1995, they held their first meeting with about ten players. Now, approximately 25 years later, the Tri-State Chess Club still meets almost every Monday.

While the club originally met at the round room at the Keokuk Library, the 9 p.m. closing time forced some games to end without finishing. So, they relocated to the Country Kitchen, which was open all night. Then, when the Country Kitchen closed, they moved the meetings to the current Hy-Vee Deli location.

The club held its first tournament in the summer of 1995 during the Hamilton Illinois “Celebration in the Park,” and it has hosted many rated chess tournaments since. The club also sponsors the long-running unrated Aulden Van Winkle Lee County Chess Tournament from the late Tournament Director Carl Dunn of the Burlington Chess Club. The club is an affiliate of the USCF and the Iowa State Chess Association.

Sam Naylor, a long-time member who was not in attendance at the tournament, remarked, “There would be no Tri-State Chess Club without Stan and Arnie. They are the ‘heart and soul’ of the club. They are active, practicing chess-players, competing in life, over-the-board contests, where their national ratings (like batting averages) are affected.”

Some strong friendships have formed from playing chess with the club. In 2012, some serious health issues rendered Naylor unable to travel to Keokuk to play chess. So, Arnie and Stan arranged for the club to play chess at the Hardee’s in Carthage. Sam said, “The guys, as an act of mercy, traveled out-of-state to bring some ‘chess life’ to their oldest member.” He said that this went on for weeks before he convinced them to return to Hy-Vee, where it was not long before he rejoined them.

Arnie said, “The Tri-State Chess Club does not have an official membership. All a person has to do is come and play chess. Once, we were going to organize and have officers. But that would have meant official meetings, and everybody just wanted to play chess.” During the 24 years of the club, hundreds of players have come and gone. There have been periods when they had 20 players each night, and at times, the club nearly disbanded when no one showed up. While everyone is important to the club, the core club members have been Arnie Gatton, Stan Felgar, and Sam Naylor.

Robert Reynolds, left, was named second place and Gary Blickhann center, was first in the Gobbler Gambit II Chess Tournament in Keokuk on November 30, 2019/ They are seen with the Tournament Director, Bob Beelman.​

The Gobbler Gambit tournament proceeds go toward covering the club’s USCF affiliation dues. The annual event is an opportunity to play during the holiday weekend. But, you can play all year with the club on Mondays at 6 p.m. at the Keokuk Hy-Vee Deli.

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