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Chess champ and grandfather re-activate Shelter Island Library’s chess club

Anyone can learn to play chess, but to play it well, you must strategize. It’s a talent Johnny Dawson, 16, possesses. He was six when his grandfather, Islander Jonas Gayer, taught him to play.

Now, Mr. Gayer said, Johnny beats him regularly. There’s no shame in losing to his grandson, however. Johnny has defeated all challengers at his high school, Trinity School on the upper West Side of Manhattan, and won numerous other competitions.

This summer, he and Mr. Gayer activated a long-dormant chess club at the library on Saturday afternoons, teaching the game to newcomers and testing their skills against all comers.

This reporter played Johnny to a draw recently. No applause, please. It was the result of a total mistake on my part — not that I was in any position to beat him.

The 10th grade chess champion had stripped the board of everything I would have needed to have a ghost of chance of winning. The only piece of worth I had on the board was my king, and any observer would have bet it would be a matter of minutes — if not seconds — before Johnny chalked up another victory.

But those aware of the game know when you create a situation where your opponent is not in check, but is unable to move without putting himself in check, the game is a draw. It wasn’t talent or a strategic move on my part. I inadvertently stumbled into the draw.

But in the days I played more often and had a halfway decent game, I still embarrassed myself chasing my opponent all over the board, but failed to be able to checkmate. Johnny taught me to effectively finish off an opponent.

He also used a series of short challenges to teach the game. They involve puzzles where a limited number of pieces are on the board and it’s up to a player to checkmate within a limited number of moves. It’s a fine way to polish one’s skills.

So what’s so fascinating about the game? Mr. Gayer answers that, explaining that it sharpens the mind and helps develop life skills not easily acquired by many other activities. You learn patience, strategy and ways of thinking not simply a step ahead, but several steps to achieve success.

When he’s not playing and winning at chess, Johnny can often be found playing “court tennis,” a precursor to the tennis game being played at the U.S. Open now or at any of the typical tennis tournaments around the world.

Court tennis or “real tennis” started as a version of handball that evolved into a racquet sport that gave rise to lawn tennis. For Johnny, it provides another game of strategy, exercising the body while chess exercises the mind.