Thanks in part to the daughter of Russian immigrants, bar theme nights and the rise of nerd culture, chess is shedding its image as a game for old men in the park or geeky social outcasts.
"I think already with this generation, we're breaking the stereotype of this is just for the social outcast kid. We're saying this is for every kind of kid," said Polina Korenman, 22, a Rogers Park resident and the vice president and director of traveling bookstore Checkmate Chess Supply. Korenman, the daughter of Russian immigrants, also teaches chess at schools, libraries, community centers—even bars—all over the Chicago area.
One of those bars is Sheffield's in Lakeview, which hosts a chess night ever third Monday of the month. The next one is Monday night. (Iguana Cafe at 517 N. Halsted also has a chess night Monday.)
Korenman is a server there and helped start chess nights at the bar in September. She had been looking for a unique venue to showcase the game and knew Sheffield's was the perfect spot after she discovered her manager was a fan of the game.
"The fun thing about doing this at a bar is that people can eat Sheffield's BBQ," said Korenman, who also is a U.S. Chess Federation certified chess tournament director. "It smells amazing, we're right next to the fireplace, and people can eat and drink. So, after a few beers and cocktails, people can get a little competitive."
Having beer and barbecue at arm's length is what keeps regulars like Alex Reeve returning to play.
"Chess night anywhere is unique, but combining it with kickass craft beers and great people makes it cathartic," said Reeve, 29, a game designer from Lakeview. "Sheffield's chess night is awesome because it shows that strategy, beer and being classy as hell aren't mutually exclusive."
Like Korenman, Reeve said chess is becoming more popular with younger Chicagoans.
"Chess is hip right now. Nerds are popular these days for the first time since Merlin Jones, and it's awesome," said Reeve, who acknowledged Korenman beats him at chess every time the two play. "It represents a fundamental shift in what we, and media, glamorize."
Mark Tolliver, the manager at Sheffield's, said chess night is a perfect fit for the bar, which started hosting them in September.
"I thought this was a great avenue for us to take," said Tolliver, 30, a Lakeview resident. "Polina and I thought of this idea. She hosts and plays at the same time. She'll play several games at once. She's pretty fun to watch; she's good."
Korenman's co-worker, Terence Pinkston, 23, has seen her talent firsthand.
"Polina shows us how we can better our game," said Terence, a Logan Square resident and cook at Sheffield's. "Chess brings out the best in people."
"I get so much praise from my students and my parents and the principals and my peers that I couldn't help but continue and want to grow," Korenman said. "It's given me a whole new approach on life."
For Korenman, introduced to the game by her grandfather at 9, chess also helped give her something in common with her dad, who runs the charity Chess for Peace.
"One of my favorite parts about the whole game of chess is how it gives me a bond with my dad," Korenman said. "It's something we get to talk about and do together."
"My dad became a chess teacher in the Chicago area and was so in-demand, so he asked if I could help out. I started with one class a week, and within a year I was teaching nine classes a week."
Her love of chess and her passion for helping kids is what inspired Korenman to volunteer at her father's charity, which brings students from different countries together to play chess and establish lasting friendships.
"Every country you go to in the entire world has somebody who plays chess, and they play by the exact same rules that we play in America," said Korenman, who met former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev through the charity. "It's a way to bring them together."
Gina Chinino is a RedEye special contributor.
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