Chicago students build bridges, honor slain Hyde Park bartender through ‘beautiful game of chess’

There’s just one rule at Chess Night.

“Our only rule is to not impose too many rules,” said Ross Shapiro, a University of Chicago student and one of the co-founders of the popular monthly event at the Cove Lounge in Hyde Park.

With that rule comes a goal: No matter what level a player may be, whether a former champion or a total newbie, it’s all about being a part of “building something” with others, even if you are trying to checkmate their king.

The event began as a way to get chess players together for a few friendly games, while also honoring a fellow chess lover who died tragically. Now, Shapiro and Dylan Sunjic, two University of Chicago roommates who founded the event, hope to build more bridges and expand the popular event beyond Hyde Park.

“We want to create a chill, laid-back and fun place to play the beautiful game of chess. We want it to be a place where we can meet new friends and build community,” Shapiro, 22, said. The pair’s next event will be Lincoln Park on April 9. Their mission is to raise money to pay for chess lessons for kids.

The fun atmosphere is what brought Vibhav Singh to Chess Night last Tuesday.

After a jam-packed day of classes, Singh, 22, walked through the bar and approached others asking, “Hey, you looking for a match?” He found a partner and took a seat across from a man wearing a black T-shirt, shaking hands before starting the timer.

The U of C student went to his first Chess Night last month and was immediately hooked. He played match after match and couldn’t seem to tear himself away despite having an assignment due that same night.

“It was a lot of fun last time. Tonight, I’m just here to meet some people and play chess,” he said.

Shapiro, a fourth-year student, started playing chess last summer for the first time since he was a kid. He approached Sunjic, 22, about holding a chess event.

At the same time, Sonnie Kireta, the owner of the Cove Lounge, had been thinking of ways to honor his former bartender Diego Damis, who was stabbed to death in 2022 as he was walking home from work. Damis, an Italian immigrant, was a regular-turned-bartender at the Cove Lounge and an avid chess player.

He would often bring a chess board to the bar and would play with others when he was there, Kireta said. He would even teach others how to play if they didn’t know how.

Chess Night was the perfect opportunity.

“In Hyde Park there tends to be a separation between the university and the neighborhood and this has brought both sides together, which is wonderful to watch,” Kireta said. “It’s a great way for us to remember our friend and it’s a great way to bring the community together.”

Shapiro and Sunjic hosted their first Chess Night in November, bringing chessboards, clocks and snacks for guests.

Shapiro said the first event attracted 40 people. By the second Chess Night, that number had doubled with a mix of students and locals.

Sixto Mendez, also a student at the university, attended his first Chess Night on Tuesday after seeing a social media post and noting how popular it was.

“I love it, I love the environment,” Mendez, 21, said. “A classical match can last up to hours and it’s where you’ll get the best moves by the best players. This is just a bunch of us hanging out, some of us are good and some of us are not, but it doesn’t matter.”

Sunjic, also a fourth-year student, learned to play chess at age 5.

“My grandfather taught me how to play when he saw I kept messing with the chess pieces we had on our dining room table,” Sunjic said.

He went so far as to win the Florida U.S. Chess Federation Junior State Championships and joined the university’s chess club when he enrolled.

As he got older, he began to appreciate the game in a new way.

“Even though it’s a competition and you want to win, there is this aspect that you’re a part of something great and you’re building something — both in a scientific and artistic way,” he said. “It requires creativity, but it also requires very straightforward calculations.”

Sunjic said he noticed chess became more popular during the pandemic, but people were no longer able to sit across from each other and shake their opponent’s hand.

“And people are just playing game after game without building some sort of camaraderie with their opponent, which I think is a pretty important part of chess,” he said.

The pair also started a scholarship fund in honor of Damis. All proceeds will help support the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club’s chess lessons for kids. At their first fundraising event, they raised over $2,400.

“The fundamentals learned in these classes are something that the students can then carry on not only for building a good understanding of the game but also for building patience and strategic planning and hopefully helping them understand that they are capable of doing something amazing,” Shapiro said.

With the event growing in popularity, the pair is expanding and hosting the first Chess Night at Galway Arms in Lincoln Park on April 9.

“People have been driving from far away to come play,” Sunjic said. “We want to take these events to different parts of Chicago. Lincoln Park is our next step and hopefully with continued success we can spread to other parts of the city.”

As the event expands, they still keep their goal in mind. Anyone is welcome to attend.

“Chess should be for everyone. There should be no barrier of entry,” Shapiro said.

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