Chess Painted

Sydney Gruber designs handmade chess boards and chess pieces.

Tom Mahoney and Charlie Bell sat next to each other at a long gray table, staring intently at separate chess boards. They both had their left hands pressed against their faces while they watched their black pieces get swiftly and efficiently picked off the boards. Tyler Freeman, the man standing on the other side of the table, switched his attention back and forth between the games, not appearing to concentrate nearly as much as the men he was comfortably beating.

Despite losing to Freeman, Mahoney and Bell were having a good time. They tossed self-deprecating jokes back and forth as their demise became more apparent with each move. Neither man had expected to beat the reigning Alabama state chess champion.

That’s not why Mahoney and Bell, or even Freeman for that matter, had come to play chess at the Kentuck Art Night in downtown Northport. They had come to enjoy the game they love in the company of other players.

The chess gathering at Kentuck was one of the latest events hosted by Tuscaloosa Chess, an organization that Mahoney started earlier this year with the goal of turning chess back into a social game in the Druid City. Mahoney started Tuscaloosa Chess to host events after he grew dissatisfied with playing chess online.

“I started looking on Meetup App and there wasn’t anybody playing or organizing games, so I just decided I would do it,” Mahoney said. “We started with one event at Cravings. I did that first thing and I guess people were hungry for it because we got like, 10 or 15 people there and then we started expanding to other places.”

Since then, he’s hosted events at multiple other locations, including UPerk Coffee Shop, Crimson Castle Games and Black Warrior Brewing Company. To Mahoney’s delight, he’s been able to drum up 10 to 15 people for most functions, drawing out players who otherwise wouldn’t have connected with each other.

“I equate chess players with clarinet players,” Mahoney said. “When you’re in high school, there are like, 20 clarinet players in the marching band and then it’s like, ‘Where did all the clarinet players go? Where are they?’ The same thing with chess players. I used to know all these people who played chess in high school and then they vanished. I don’t think they wanted to stop playing chess. Someone else can do the clarinet meetup. I’ll do the chess meetup.”

Along with incorporating new players into the Tuscaloosa chess community, Mahoney has linked with existing organizations and prominent local players. That includes Freeman, who has been working to revitalize the chess scene in the Druid City since he moved to Tuscaloosa two years ago. 

Since teaching himself how to play chess as a junior in high school, Freeman has been infatuated with the game. So much so that he recently started his own company called The Winning Formula, which provides chess coaching as part of its services. He also serves as the president of Freedom Chess Academy, a nonprofit organization that strives to expand the game of chess in West Alabama.

“Everyone can learn and benefit from the skills that chess teaches,” Freeman said. “That’s my main platform – just the skills that it has to offer are really important.”

Freeman has worked with Mahoney to host chess get-togethers, from casual free play gatherings to competitive tournaments.

“I like [Mahoney’s] vision of bringing chess back to the public and making it a social game like it once was,” Freeman said.

One of those iconic get-togethers included the Oct. 3 chess night at Kentuck. Freeman is one of the premiere chess players in Alabama, having claimed the 2018 state title at the Alabama Chess Federations’ tournament in Birmingham. But Freeman’s expertise doesn’t stop him from playing against people of all skill levels.

After Freeman beat Mahoney and Bell in the simultaneous game, he walked over to another table and sat down to play a traditional one-on-one match against Sydney Gruber, who had wandered in from her art studio in the room next door. Although she’s a lifelong player, Gruber wasn’t at Kentuck Art Night just to compete in chess – she was there to promote her artwork to the non-chess players who were perusing the studios. After graduating from the University of Alabama in 2014, Gruber became the youngest artist to ever receive a residency at the Kentuck Art Center.

When she started out as a professional artist, Gruber was searching for a way to set herself apart. Inspired by the game she’d always been fond of, Gruber began using hand-painted bishop pieces to carry her business cards.

“I wanted to be memorable as an artist, so I took a little creative license and made business bishops,” Gruber said. “I figured people would hang onto it. I’m pretty sure no one else is doing it so this is kind of like, my thing.”

But Gruber didn’t stop at bishops. She started painting entire chess sets after striking up a happenstance business relationship with Chess House, a Seattle-based chess company.

“I called [Chess House] and I asked them how many single white bishops they had and they said they had 350,” Gruber said. “I said, ‘Great, I’ll take them.’ The president of Chess House contacted me and were like, ‘Hey, this kind of an unusual order. Who are you?’ I told them that it was fine, I’m an artist in Alabama and that I had this idea. It led to a whole relationship. I’ve worked with them for four years now.”

Gruber’s colorfully-painted chess sets have since been shipped all over the world, including Scotland, England and Singapore . She’s also sold specialty-made sets featuring the colors of SEC football teams to local residents.

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Although Gruber’s contribution to chess differs from Freeman’s and Mahoney’s, all three play an important role in the revival of Tuscaloosa’s chess scene. Whether it’s painting the pieces or setting up gatherings, they’re all working to expand the game that has meant so much to them.


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