You might think little Chess merit badge would get lost amid action-packed Jamboree activities like mountain biking, shotgun shooting and zip lining.
But then you climb the hill to the Chess merit badge tent and see the truth.
The main tent — plus a second, larger tent beside it — is full. At each of the more than a dozen tables, Scouts sit across from one another in intense concentration. They scratch their heads and stroke their chins as they contemplate the right play.
The high traffic comes as no surprise to the man in charge of the Chess MB tent: Bob Greer, a volunteer from the Allohak Council of West Virginia and Ohio.
His tent was packed in 2013, too, which was the first Jamboree after the merit badge’s 2011 debut. He says even more Scouts have stopped by in 2017.
The tent features daily chess tournaments, open play and, of course, the opportunity to work on the merit badge.
And because chess requires two players, it’s a social gathering place as well.
“You have to play face to face,” Greer says. “You shake hands before you start, and you don’t have to know anything about the other person.”
That makes chess an international game, too.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re from China or Russia or the United States,” he says. “Chess is a universal language. The moves are all written the same way.”
Greer’s love of chess long predates the creation of a Chess merit badge. He remembers playing chess at Scout camp 40 years ago, formulating moves by lantern light until curfew.
Like a lot of chess players his age, Greer was attracted to the game by the success of Bobby Fischer, the American who became one of the greatest chess players who ever lived.
Today, many Scouts have never heard of Fischer, but they still love the game. And it’s good for them, too.
“Chess helps youth with decision making, concentration and critical thinking,” he says. “We have learned as a society that those things are important to professions in engineering, medicine and more.”
Not bored with the board
On the list of most popular elective merit badges — that is, those that are not required for Eagle — Chess ranks ninth. It’s right behind Kayaking and Canoeing merit badges.
But despite its popularity, some Scouts have trouble finding a Chess merit badge counselor back home. The Jamboree gives them access to one of the best. (Greer, an attorney, moonlights as a certified chess tournament director.)
Justin Sorrell, 15, is a Life Scout in Jamboree Troop 4122A in the Gulf Stream Council of Florida.
He couldn’t find a Chess counselor back home. So when he saw the Chess merit badge tent at the Jamboree, he made a move directly toward it.
“I just enjoy playing it,” he says. “It challenges your brain and helps you think and react more.”
Justin’s opponent during my visit is Stone Yoder, 14, a Star Scout in Jamboree Troop 2443 in the Pathway to Adventure Council of Illinois.
Justin and Stone didn’t know each other before today. They met over the chess board.
“I really like strategy games, and this game makes your brain work,” Stone says. “It’s something you have to think out.”