It’s 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday, and the air in the Blount County Library is thick with anticipation. Long tables have been set up at the far end of the main atrium, each one lined with chessboards. Would-be players mill about anxiously. If it were up to them, they’d already be playing, but this is no casual gathering. It’s the Tom Jobe Memorial Chess Tournament, and it can only begin once the first round of pairings—that is, who’ll be playing whom—is announced.
Given the hour and location, you might imagine the tournament participants to be an older crowd, and there is indeed a contingent of seniors who get their own private room, a privilege that tournament chief Jennifer Ogle attributes to their skill level and general grumpiness. The vast majority of the 45 participants, however, have not yet finished middle school. Some look barely tall enough to see over the tabletops. They’re all eager experts, though, and await their pairings with disciplined excitement.
The Blount County Chess Club, the organization running today’s tournament, welcomes members of all ages, but kids are the primary focus, a quality that the club owes to its founder, the late Thomas B. Jobe, for whom this tournament is named.
“Tom was great with kids,” recalls club member Robert Bird, who wandered into a meeting when he was 14 and has risen to become one of the club’s de facto leaders since Jobe died, in March, at the age of 71. “He was a beautiful person, always encouraging you to do more than you thought you could. And no one was better at handling kids at tournaments. I don’t know how he did it, but there was no crisis that he couldn’t diffuse.”
A graduate of the Maryville’s old Everett High School (now Everett Learning Center), Jobe was a lifelong chess fanatic. The first club he joined met at the old Fort Craig Elementary School, now long closed. It was there that he met fellow chess enthusiast Mack Garner. The two would remain friends for more than 50 years.
Garner played chess with the U.S. Olympic team in 1976 and ’80, making him one of the most distinguished occupants of the tournament’s private room for adult players. Jobe served in the Navy after high school and volunteered with a kids’ chess club in Norfolk, Va. On returning to Blount County, he decided to start a chess club.
“Tom believed that with chess, you could combine recreation and education,” Garner says. “Introduce kids to a fun game they can play for the rest of their lives, and teach them the valuable skills—focus, strategy, courtesy, fair play—that go along with it. These are things that anyone can pick up. That’s what I love about chess. The board starts out the same for everyone. You don’t have to be big or strong to be good—you just have to think. If you make the right moves, you can beat anyone.”
Back at the library, the time has finally come: high-school chess coach Christina Mullinax advances to the far end of the atrium, a posterboard trifold in hand. A piece of paper with the first set of section pairings printed on it is taped to the inside. She sets the poster down in front of the kids, patiently waiting for every participant to assemble before making the big reveal. As she gently goes over a few rules specific to the tournament, the young chess masters lean in towards the trifold, their eyes, minds, and hearts fixated on its secret contents.
At 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning, the game of chess commands their full attention. Tom Jobe has left an incredible legacy.
Share this Post