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.