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Shared love of chess helps build bridges at St. Louis homeless shelter

Volunteer Sam Roth, right, plays chess with a Biddle House shelter resident on July 9, 2018. The chess club began in 2016, the same year the shelter opened.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

Terry Austin eyes his opponent across the chessboard, then deftly captures his knight.

A few moves later, opponent Ed Rataj admits defeat.

The two play in the communal living area at Biddle House, a shelter for people who are homless near downtown St. Louis. Austin is a resident. The Biddle House chess club began in 2016, the same year the shelter opened. Twice a week, shelter residents gather to play chess with volunteers from the community.

For Austin, chess is like boxing: You have to time your moves just right.

“You have to look at it, like, '[I’ll] throw this jab, cover up, switch positions and then throw a real hard right,'” said Austin, who has lived at Biddle House intermittently since November 2017. “Any boxer will tell you, all those plans usually go straight to the toilet once you get hit in the nose.”

Austin first learned how to play chess when he was 5 years old at the Herbert Hoover Boys & Girls Club in St. Louis. As a quiet kid who preferred to spend recess in the library, the game naturally appealed to him.

“You don’t run into many troublemakers around the chessboard,” he said. “They don’t last long, because the biggest part of chess, I think, is patience and memory.”

After the match, Austin shakes hands with his opponent, Ed Rataj, a retired corporate lawyer.

Rataj started the volunteer chess club at St. Peter & Paul Shelter in Soulard in 2015, then branched out to include Biddle House the following year. He now manages a group of 30 volunteers who play chess with residents at both locations.

The chess club brings together people from different walks of life who wouldn’t normally interact, said Rataj.

“What we bring is somebody who looks different, who is different, plays a different style,” Rataj said. “You both reflect on here is another human being with dignity, and you also get a little bit of humility, and we can all use that.”

Rataj, who retired 10 years ago, jokes that the chess club helps keep him out of his wife’s hair. But the truth is, he just really loves chess.

“It’s the greatest board game in the history of the world,” he said. “It is so utterly complex. You can look at the board, and the number of combinations is simply incredible.”

John Carpenter joined the club at Biddle House about two years ago. He has been playing chess for the past five years. Shelter residents are often tough competitors, he said.

“I find it hard to beat ‘em,” Carpenter said. “My very first two or three months, I would come in here, and I’d get frustrated. I would say to Ed, ‘I can never win, these guys are so good.’ He said, ‘All these people, they’ve been dealt some blows here. If they score a win, it’s something that they can be proud of.’”

The volunteer chess programs at Biddle House and Peter & Paul Shelter are open to all skill levels. Interested players can contact Ed Rataj at 314-727-4827.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan is a PhD ecologist and science podcast editor at American Public Media. She was previously a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.