Checkmate: The Neal Harris experience

THE REAL DEAL: Local resident Neal Harris is a U.S. Chess Federation National Life Master and one of only 10 members of the N.C. Chess Hall of Fame. Photo by Jarrett Van Meter

At a West Asheville picnic table, Neal Harris — one of only 10 members of the N.C. Chess Hall of Fame — ticks my pieces from the board with almost comical ease. In the process, he shares stories and insights from his decorated career as both a chess player and local teacher. On the other side of the board, I am as helpless and bewildered as one of Beth Harmon’s opponents in the popular Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit.”

Harris grew up in McDowell County, where he taught himself to play the game he has since built his life around. As a player, he ascended to the level of a U.S. Chess Federation National Life Master, which is traditionally earned by maintaining the minimum master rating of 2,200 for 300 consecutive chess games. He has won his fair share of tournaments along the way, defeating several grand masters. His task on this day is far less strenuous.

When I, playing as black, make a particular move, he tells the story of a second grader named Christopher who defeated a man named Grumpy after the latter committed the same error I just made.

“How do you eat an ice cream cone?” Harris asks rhetorically. “I’m going to enjoy this.”

Cold War kid

Harris discovered his passion for teaching the game of chess to young players in the early 1990s, after the Cold War ended— a discovery made through defeat and resulting necessity. As the top-level Russian and European players began making their way to America to compete, many of the top American players were suddenly relegated to lower echelons of competition and consequently prize money.

Since that time, Harris has coached hundreds, if not thousands, of students throughout Western North Carolina. Prior to the pandemic, he spent the workweek traveling among chess clubs at Odyssey School, Veritas Christian Academy, Avery’s Creek Elementary, Thrive Education Center, Koontz Intermediate School, Valley Springs Middle School and T.C. Roberson High School, as well as Asheville and Black Mountain home school groups. The students ranged from kindergartener to high school seniors, but all were treated to the self-described “Neal Harris Experience.”

“I try to teach in three directions,” Harris explains. “The first one is I have a demonstration board that I hang on the wall and physically make the moves with the pieces. You have a board in front of you, almost like a computer screen, and you move the pieces on the board. And then I try to playact it out sometimes. Have one person be the king, one person be the knight and explain what I am trying to do.”

Simple as that

Despite COVID-19, Harris saw a spike in tutorial inquiries following the October debut of “The Queen’s Gambit.” A casual viewer, Harris appreciates the show’s attention to detail.

“It does not deviate like some of the chess movies you’ve seen where the king and queen are on the wrong square or something like that,” he says.

But his lessons are largely on hold until he is able to resume in-person classes and deliver instruction with his signature flair. He hopes the momentum the game has gained in recent months will continue once restrictions are lifted.

“I have tried online teaching, and I don’t like it,” Harris says. “The Neal Harris Experience has to be live, simple as that.”

As for our game, it didn’t last as long as even he had anticipated. “Checkmate in four,” he says shortly after we began. Indeed, four moves later, I was picking up the pieces, both literally and figuratively.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Jarrett Van Meter
Follow me @jvanmeter31

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

6 thoughts on “Checkmate: The Neal Harris experience

  1. Erika

    Mr. Harris is a treasure. I am so sad that my son is missing out on chess with him through the pandemic.

    • Becky LedBetter

      I am wondering if this is Neal Harris who attended WCU ? We were friends back in the mid 70s. Do you remember me?

  2. Meghan McNamara

    I am wondering if Mr. Harris teaches privately? Any way I could connect to him would be much appreciated!
    Thank you,

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.