Ottawa High School freshman Eleanor Hasty has an analytical mind that is seemingly custom-made for a game like chess. The same intellect that enables her to see several moves ahead also helped her to see that— nice as it is— Ottawa lacked a certain something.
A Bold Gambit
She has been interested in chess since the age of six, taught by her grandfather, who coached a chess team at one time. One evening, as she watched an episode of “Malcolm in the Middle” in which the title character plays chess in a park, inspiration struck. She thought, “Why don’t we have chess tables in the park?” Her dad encouraged her to develop the idea, and she was off. “I didn’t know I could just change the community like that,” she says.
Her wish to have chess tables in the park was not at all self-serving, though. Her motivation was the betterment of Ottawa as a whole. She felt that residents and visitors alike would enjoy the convenient, free activity, and that Ottawa would, in turn, become a little more lively and vibrant.
But, before she could start sending emails, taking meetings and speaking on the phone with people who could help make her dream happen, she had to drum up interest among the chess-playing public in Ottawa. And so, Chess N’ Checkers in the Park was born.
She promoted the events on Facebook, setting up a few chess sets on picnic tables in Washington Square Park every other Sunday, from noon until three in the afternoon. “I liked chess, and I wanted to bring people together, I thought that was a good idea.” Apparently, others thought so, too. Sometimes as many as 10 or 15 players show up to test their skills and enjoy an afternoon outdoors at the park. “We have a lot of kids who like to come, and just random people who see it, and they just sit down and play,” she says.
Once she had made her pitch, she found that almost everyone who heard her idea agreed that chess tables in the park would be a benefit to the city. The original plan was for a single concrete chess table to be installed in Washington Square Park, made possible by an anonymous donation of $1,000. Then, to Eleanor’s surprise, the Starved Rock County Community Foundation stepped up with the funding for a second table. Still in the planning stages is a way to make it possible for players to check out sets of chess pieces at the Visitors’ center, so anyone can play, any time.
Besides chess, Eleanor likes to read – mostly nonfiction, science fiction and autobiographies. She has been in advanced math classes since the seventh grade. This year she is taking Honors Geometry, and she hopes to attend the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy next year. Eleanor hasn’t thought much yet about her plans for after high school, but as a freshman, she’s still got a little time. She’s just trying to focus on the present, because school and life can get pretty hectic. She says that thinking about the future can sometimes stress her out, because of all the unknowns, but there’s one sure thing that she can hold on to when she needs some comfort. “I just know for a fact that those chess tables will always be there,” she says with obvious, and justified, pride.