EASTHAM — To understand the story of the Miles Tibbetts Chess Club at Nauset Regional High School you must first know who Miles Tibbetts was.
“He started playing chess when he was very young, with his grandfather,” says his mother, Joyce Tibbetts of Wellfleet. “They would just play. I was always oblivious because I don’t play chess, but meanwhile he’s learning this fabulous skill.”
Miles quickly got very good at the game.
“He would challenge people,” Joyce says. “We had a smart friend in the family and he taught Miles more advanced moves. He just continued to get better.”
Wellfleet brothers Walter and Ray Rowell have fond memories of playing chess with Miles. Walter was in Miles’s class.
“I played Miles hundreds of times and I never beat him,” says Walter. “He was very strict on time. He didn’t want to wait around for your next move because he already knew the next four moves he was going to make.”
“He was very smart,” says Ray, who is three years older than Walter. “I split games with him a lot,” that is, won some and lost some.
As Miles continued to improve his game, he began participating in the Mark Hayden Fineman Memorial Chess Tournament, held annually in Harwich. He did well every year, and once came away with a cash prize.
“It’s for kids up to eighth grade,” says Joyce Tibbetts. “Miles did it every year.” She can still see him playing in her mind’s eye. “There’s Miles with his jet-black hair,” she says, “totally focused, leaning over the chess board.”
When he was in middle school Miles started volunteering at the Wellfleet Public Library, where his mother has worked as a library assistant for about 15 years. He taught kids to play chess.
“He was teaching kids and one kid ended up learning real quick and then the kid was able to beat Miles,” Joyce says. “He liked teaching. He liked showing people the game.” He continued as a volunteer through his sophomore year, which he completed in June 2013.
That summer he worked at Hatch’s Fish Market in the parking lot behind town hall. On Aug. 17, riding his bike on Route 6 to get to work, he was struck by a car and killed. Miles was 16 years old.
After his death, there was an outpouring of grief and community support for the Tibbetts family, which included his grandparents, Cyndi and George Moe, and his great-grandmother, Glenore Moe.
A scholarship fund in Miles’s name was created. It awards $1,000 each year to a Nauset High senior in recognition of volunteerism and community service.
That fall, Sean Mulholland, a Latin teacher at the high school, organized a chess tournament in honor of Miles. It took place on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and lasted just one class period — the last period of the day. Students paid $5 each to participate, and all the money went into the Miles Tibbetts Scholarship Fund.
The chess tournament has continued each year, growing more and more popular. It led to the formation of the Miles Tibbetts Chess Club at Nauset, which began competing in the South Coast Conference Interscholastic Chess League in 2015. The students compete against Sturgis, Wareham, Dartmouth, Plymouth South, and Martha’s Vineyard. Mulholland serves as the club’s adviser.
“Miles was in my Latin class,” Mulholland says. “He was one of the top-ranked students in his grade.”
In that first season of chess competition Nauset did not fare so well.
“We lost every single game,” says Mulholland.
But in just three years, the club has matured and grown strong. Last year, Nauset won the league championship.
Teams need a minimum of five players to compete in the league. Mulholland says the club now has six solid members. Senior Dory Carlson is considered the best chess player in the school, he says, with junior Michael Whitney right behind him. Another strong player is junior Cyrus Seyrafi.
“All of a sudden people like Michael, Dory, and Cyrus showed up and just turned everything around,” says Mulholland.
Chess is about strategy, patience, and foresight. “You can get ahead if you know certain tactics,” says Whitney. Like Tibbetts, Whitney was introduced to the game at a young age by his grandfather.
Whitney says that Carlson likes to set up traps and use a strategy called the Caro-Kann defense to fend off opponents.
“I started researching how to beat a Caro-Kann defense and I tried it but I still lost,” Whitney says.
The chess club’s season begins this week and Nauset will be defending its championship.
Mulholland says that most of the players are juniors and seniors so it will take some recruiting to get a new crop of students on board for the future. Last week he spent one afternoon teaching the game to a newcomer, Lauren Knight, in hopes of getting her to join the club.
The growth and success of the chess club is something that Joyce Tibbetts treasures.
“I love their dedication and Sean’s passion and enthusiasm for getting kids into it,” she says. “It’s been six years now since Miles died, so it’s really touching that all this is happening in his name and memory.”
Ray Rowell agrees. “It’s good to see his legacy there,” he says.