Chess is capturing new attention

Plus: The latest from CMS superintendent on return-to-school plans; Reader mailbag; January's hot rezonings 🔥; Nominate for 40 Over 40 and we will stop making TikTok videos

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Today’s Charlotte Ledger is sponsored by Carroll Financial, one of the Charlotte region’s oldest and largest family-owned, independent financial planning and investment management firms:

‘Queen’s Gambit’ hits Queen City and is helping produce a ‘chess boom’ at Charlotte Chess Center; 10,000 followers on Twitch

Chess players compete in the 2020 North American Junior Under 20 Championship, held at the Hilton University Place in December. (Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Chess Center and Scholastic Academy.)

by David Griffith

Chess was already growing in popularity due to the limitations Covid put on social activity. Then the hit Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit” put it under a new spotlight, and people around Charlotte and nationwide began dusting off their boards. 

The show, which follows the story of a young chess prodigy’s rise from an orphanage to the world stage, launched in October and became Netflix’s most-watched original series within four weeks.

Though that record has since been broken and TV hype has turned to other shows like “Bridgerton,” the cultural impact of “The Queen’s Gambit” has been immeasurable, say chess experts like Peter Giannatos, founder and director of the Charlotte Chess Center and Scholastic Academy.  

“You have the gamers taking up chess. You’ve got the general population interested in chess. You’ve got a Netflix TV show that’s top 10 for weeks,” Giannatos said. “It was just the perfect recipe for a chess boom.” 

Pawn moves online: The pandemic checkmated CCCSA’s live events, with the exception of some select invitationals. The academy also had to suspend programs at more than 40 schools around Mecklenburg County.  

In the meantime, academy leaders have been creating and hosting online tournaments and classes on YouTube, and also created a Twitch livestreaming channel, which has grown to almost 10,000 followers in less than a year. 

And that mirrors a worldwide trend. Popular gaming YouTubers like Mr. Beast and Pokimane have made streams in collaboration with worldwide top players like Hikaru Nakamura. Many top chess players have gone on Twitch because of Covid. 

Giannatos said that with in-person classes and events canceled it’s hard to gauge what lift the show would have given his academy. But he said online interest is encouraging and he believes the enthusiasm will still be there once he’s able to open his facility back up. In 2019, events typically attracted 60 to 70 people, he said.

Giannatos said he’s seeing more inquiries than usual from adult players who want to improve their game. 

The growth of a program: Located near Pineville, CCCSA began as a small-time chess club called Queen City Chess Association in 2007, founded by Giannatos and Mike Eberhardinger. It started out meeting at the Asian Herald Library, then grew in popularity until it rebranded as an independent organization in 2014 with a new location and name. It hosts tournaments, classes and camps for chess players all ages and skill levels, and it boasts a collection of over 700 borrowable books. 

Giannatos said the complexity of chess is what’s kept interest growing — both in his organization for years and worldwide for centuries.  

“In other games you can sort of win, you beat the game and it gets old,” he said. “In chess, you never beat the game.”  

A nationwide sensation: Chess in the United States took off in the 1970s during the Bobby Fischer era, when Fischer, an American, defeated the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky, ending a long Soviet reign of world championships. Fueled by Cold War propaganda, interest in the game reached unprecedented heights before plateauing as Fischer faded from public eye. 

“The Queen’s Gambit” ignited the chess spark again, showing viewers who knew nothing about chess a world they didn’t know existed, Giannatos said. Chess lovers also reveled in the show, which is named for a chess strategy designed to control the center of the board.  

Giannatos said that with the exception of the female lead, the atmosphere and time period of “The Queen’s Gambit” is accurate for what the chess scene was like in the 1960s and 1970s. 

“‘The Queens Gambit’ did a really good job of every aspect in … making it fun to watch to a wide audience, but also getting the chess part right,” he said.  

The trend has spilled over even into some Charlotte area businesses that have nothing do with chess.  

At Carolina Tabletop Games, general manager Ricky Jacoby doesn’t stock chess boards and was perplexed by calls to the store asking if he sold them — until he learned about “The Queens’ Gambit” while talking to The Ledger.  

Giannatos, meanwhile, has found the surge in popularity hard to avoid. 

“I’d go to the barber shop, I have a chess shirt on,” he said, “and they’re like, ‘Oh you play chess? Did you watch ‘Queen’s Gambit?’’” 

David Griffith is The Ledger’s reporting intern. 

Today’s supporting sponsors are T.R. Lawing Realty:

… and Landon A. Dunn, Attorney at Law in Matthews:

Winston is light on specifics when asked whether CMS might speed up K-5 return: ‘We believe we have the right plan in place’

Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper urged school districts to open classrooms to students, and state health officials issued new guidance recommending that K-5 schools “should return to in-person instruction five days per week to the fullest extent possible while following all public health protocols.”

Cooper and state officials cited studies showing that the risk of Covid transmission is low when safety protocols are followed.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plans to open elementary schools on Feb. 15 for two-days-a-week rotations. Middle and high schoolers, who haven’t been inside a classroom for nearly a year, will return to buildings for one week out of every three starting Feb. 22.

The Ledger asked CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston on Friday why he’s not pushing to get K-5 students back to five-days-a-week in-person class faster, given the new state guidance and scientific studies. A change in the plan would need to be voted on by the CMS school board, which meets on Tuesday.

Winston’s response:

We believe we have the right plan in place that the board approved back in January, on January 14. That’s the plan we’re moving forward with. But that does not mean that we’re not constantly evaluating our progress and could come back at a future meeting and recommend a slightly different plan that increases either the frequency in which kids come back or bringing more students into our classrooms. That will be based on our data and our evaluation as we move forward. We believe it’s prudent to start in the place where we planned on February 15 and then bring back our middle and high school students on February 22. And we’ll continue to monitor our progress toward the goal of bringing more students back in person.

Reporters from other media outlets followed up on The Ledger’s question, with WBT’s Brett Jensen asking Winston whether staffing issues or worries over safety were the reasons for not opening to K-5 more fully.

Winston’s response:

We believe we have the right plan in place. It’s the plan that our board of education approved and we intend on implementing that plan beginning on February the 15th. I think what is key in this discussion is the fact that each community is different and you have to consider the local circumstances in each community. For Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, we believe the plan we have in place to bring a portion of our students back on February 15 and the rest beginning on February 22, we believe that’s the best plan. We’re prepared to implement that plan, and we remain cautiously optimistic from a staffing standpoint our metrics are moving in the right direction, … we’re cautiously optimistic around our successful opening on February 15.

Christine Pejot, CMS chief human resources officer, followed up on Winston’s response to Jensen with a little more clarity that perhaps staffing concerns were a reason behind not accelerating the K-5 return. Said Pejot:

The phrase we have been using is “cautiously optimistic,” and that is because the situation around leaves and vacancies — particularly leaves — is a very fluid situation, so it requires that constant monitoring to see where we are in terms of staffing levels for those primary categories that we share weekly on that [CMS Covid metrics] dashboard. This week some of those metrics still remain in yellow, so that in and of itself is cautionary. …

So, it looks like students will be walking the school halls later this month. But it’s a safe bet that plenty of parents and CMS staff will be watching Tuesday’s school board meeting to see if they make any 11th-hour changes. — CB

Reader response 📭

Let’s dip into the ol’ Ledger e-mailbag and see what readers had to say:

In response “A Better You in 2021,” Jan. 8 (🔒) and Jan. 13: (🔒)

  • “I was so excited to read an article by Tommy Tomlinson, one of my favorite writers! He has such an easy way of writing and engaging. I’ve enjoyed reading his book and his articles for many years. Interestingly, his article talked about how to write, which I needed desperately.”

  • “I loved Michael Price’s recent article. He has so much good information and is so willing to share it, especially with our children. He’s an amazing teacher! His words of wisdom always seem to give me a great foundation to try and keep trying.”

In response to “How less can be more in 2021” (Jan. 9):

  • “I laughed out loud several times while reading your resolutions. I know it was not meant to be a humor column but it was funny because it was so true for most of us. Your resolutions are great and could/should apply to all. Thanks for making me smile and forward it a few times.”

In response to “Gibbie Harris shields CMS from tough decision (🔒)” (Jan. 13)

  • “I think it was irresponsible of her to send that out without making clear that it was not a stay-at-home order. And with no notice. Parents of kids who were already in school are scrambling.”

  • “So the aquatic center is closing again in deference to Gibbie’s theatrics. Presumably all the employees stay on full salary and benefits with no work to perform while we pretend that this will help slow the spread. Never saw that topic of public employees being paid to not work, even when county services other than sheriff, fire, ambulance, trash were shut down for 3 months in the spring.”

In response to “Some front line doctors have trouble getting vaccinations (🔒)” (Jan. 15):

  • “I go to physical therapy twice a week and work very closely with my therapists at OrthoCarolina. They have been waiting weeks without so much as a call back about an appointment. These are front-line workers who have not stopped seeing patients in-person throughout the pandemic. The lack of organization and transparency around this vaccine is shameful.”

  • “That’s a fabulous piece on independent health care providers unable to get their shots while the big hospitals hog their wealth of serum. And it’s just so typically Michelle Crouch [who wrote the article] — broadly reported, balanced, lots of voices across the various divides, and her ear for the between-the-eyes quote remains sharp: ‘hoarding of vaccine by profit-driven entities.’”

In response to “In Brief” (Jan. 20), which featured news summaries mentioning Robert Pittenger, Robin Hayes, Richard Burr and Dan DiMicco:

  • “Although your writers are not taking obvious bias in the words they use, the number of articles where conservative people have been accused of wrongdoing, are in trouble, pardoned and just basically are not shed in a good light, etc., far outweighed those mentioned of liberal leanings/affiliations. I’ve not noticed this with your newsletter in previous publications but this letter cited four conservatives and no liberals. I’ll be watching closely moving forward and hope that you don’t disappoint me and others to give even an equal representation of what is happening to both conservative and liberal people of interest alike.”

In response to “Quotable: ‘We’ll shut the whole place down’” (Jan. 25):

  • “I am disappointed that the Ledger did not call out George Dunlap for this. Ask him to produce any scientific evidence that lockdowns have made a difference. California is the most locked down state in the nation yet has the most cases. The county should isolate the ‘at risk’ population as that has proven useful in many countries. Besides, locking down Mecklenburg only drives dollars to South Carolina.”

In response to “CMS chronic absenteeism” (summary of Charlotte Agenda article, Jan. 29):

  • “Are you kidding me? How is publishing this headline in your newsletter helping systemic racism? It’s not — because it’s not telling the full story. You know very well the attention span of readers isn’t going to think critically a few steps ahead. How dare you not include the fact that Hispanic and Black communities in Charlotte are more likely to be in high poverty situations, and high poverty contributes to absenteeism. … Please get out of the bubble of the south Charlotte wedge and actually take the time to learn and get to know at what it’s like to be in high poverty in Charlotte.”

In response to “A nurse says goodbye to Granny” (Jan. 30):

  • “It brought a tear, but really glad you did this piece. After we all hailed them as heroes a year ago, too many of us forget the sacrifices nurses like Tiffany are making for us every day.”

  • “Thanks for your story about the Covid nurse and her grandmother.  It is nice to hear human interest stories about major issues. I was disappointed to read that the doctor offered nurse Pennington and her grandfather the option to disregard the patient’s signed do-not-resuscitate order. Is that legal or even ethical? I thought the whole point of having those advanced directives was to prevent the family from being put into such an uncomfortable position in the first place.”

In brief:

  • Economic recovery continuing: The Charlotte region added nearly 45,000 jobs in the 4Q of 2020, and that rate of job growth (3.5%) is faster than the national average, according to a new report from the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance. The region has added back about half the jobs that were lost in the first half of 2020. (Agenda)

  • Mallard Creek apartments: Crescent Communities filed plans with the city last week to add 380 housing units to its Novel Research Park development in Mallard Creek. A rezoning petition shows that Crescent wants to build up to 350 apartments and 30 townhouses on a 28-acre site across Senator Royal Place from its existing site, near West Mallard Creek Church Road and I-85.

  • City Council agenda: The Charlotte City Council tonight is expected to hear an update on efforts to build a new light-rail line and other transit improvements, as well as hear a strategy for combatting “source of income discrimination,” or the practice of some landlords refusing to rent to tenants who use government-subsidized housing vouchers.

  • Diversity in commercial real estate: Beacon Partners, Crescent Communities, Faison and Asana Partners are participating in an internship program run by Project Destined and the Urban Land Institute Charlotte that’s designed to increase the number of minority employees in commercial real estate. “The big-picture goal is to be able to attract and educate a future pipeline of diverse professionals in our community and create upward mobility,” Beacon’s chief operating officer said. (Biz Journal, subscriber-only)

  • UNC celebration crackdown: UNC Chapel Hill chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said the university will “work with local authorities to pursue consequences” after hundreds of students rushed Franklin Street (video) to celebrate the Tar Heels’ basketball win over the rival Duke Blue Devils on Saturday night. “We are in the middle of a global pandemic, and Covid doesn’t take a break for the Duke game,” he wrote on Twitter.

TikTok Takeover: ‘If You’re Old Enough’

It’s time for the latest installment of TikTok Takeover, in which we bring some Gen X and Boomer sensibilities to TikTok to encourage you to nominate someone for our 40 Over 40 awards:

Sometimes, people do great things in their 40s and older — like win Super Bowls. Our 40 Over 40 awards recognize those aged 40+ who are Charlotte’s MVPs, making our community a better place in a variety of ways. Help us find them and honor them.

Only ONE WEEK LEFT to nominate — do it today!

Details here!

[Watch our previous TikTok Takeover video, with a Charlotte development theme]

January’s hot rezoning action 🔥

Townhouses proposed in Ballantyne and east Charlotte … a car dealership plans an expansion … a redevelopment of an old mill … and much, much more. Developers in January submitted three dozen rezoning requests to the city.

Each month, The Ledger provides details on all the rezonings submitted the previous month, before they hit Charlotte’s main rezoning website. It’s a window into developers’ plans and a chance for residents to see what’s being proposed near their neighborhoods. The info is available to our community of paying subscribers.

If you need your real estate fix, check it out:

January's rezonings

Taking stock

Unless you are a day trader, checking your stocks daily is unhealthy. So how about weekly? How local stocks of note fared last week (through Friday’s close), and year to date:

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Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN AdvisoryReporting intern: David Griffith; TikTok consultant: Cecilia Bolling