Empowering South Bend youth through chess

Author: Colleen Wilcox, Office of Public Affairs

Gaaya Binoj, a 2022 Missouri Girls Chess State Champion, hosted the first-ever chess tournament at RCLC.
Gaaya Binoj, a 2022 Missouri Girls Chess State Champion, hosted the first-ever chess tournament at RCLC.

Gaaya Binoj matches the intensity in the room, as she slowly makes her way past two South Bend students who are finishing up a game of chess.

“They’re all very focused — you can hear a pin drop,” the Notre Dame freshman says. “There’s an unusual level of confidence in the room and that’s a great thing.”

In April, Binoj hosted the first-ever chess tournament at Robinson Community Learning Center (RCLC), which attracted a diverse array of South Bend students ranging in age from kindergarteners to high school seniors. The tournament was sanctioned by the United States Chess Federation, and awards were divided into different categories based on skill levels.

The idea of hosting a chess tournament in South Bend sprouted from a conversation among Binoj, fellow Notre Dame Chess Club members and Notre Dame Professor Todd Walatka, who runs the Saint Joseph Grade School chess club and other scholastic chess events. With their support and encouragement, Binoj knew it was time to share her passion with students in the community, recognizing the power of chess and the game’s ability to foster critical thinking, strategic planning and sportsmanship.

“I look at all of the ways that chess changed my life and I want to make that more accessible to everyone,” adds Binoj, who holds the title of 2022 Missouri Girls Chess State Champion.

Back home in St. Louis, Binoj started a chess club for the community and ultimately ran tournaments for club members. Chess Cardinals, which is now a nonprofit, also hosts workshops for girls and offers affordable afterschool and summer programs.

Now that Binoj calls South Bend home, she wanted to do something similar.

A pilot program launched at RCLC in the fall of 2023, offering students a chance to learn the game of chess after school. Led by Notre Dame sophomore Michael Gilligan, 10 students signed up to participate in the program. By the spring, nearly 25 students were playing chess a few times a week.

“With a growing interest in chess, we wanted to provide kids with a platform to showcase their skills,” says Tyonne Johnson, youth development program director at RCLC. “It’s important to provide students with the repetition and steady presence of chess.”

With so much momentum with the club, Binoj wanted to introduce longer-format games. She worked with Johnson, student volunteers and the U.S. Chess Federation to host “Rockne’s Rooks: Scholastic Tournament” on April 20 with nearly 30 registered participants.

With support from Binoj and the Notre Dame Chess Club, Johnson hopes to open up the program to more students outside of RCLC starting in the fall. Program announcements and updates will be posted to the RCLC website.

“We’ve created a unique community through chess,” Binoj says. “We’re teaching them patience and how to think strategically — these are skills that they will use for the rest of their lives.”

Winners of the April 20 tournament include the following:

  • First place: Nathan Walatka

  • Second place: Anirudh Sai Jeeju

  • Third place: Patrick Nelson

  • Top female: Akshara Ramidi

  • Top underrated: Alex Hinson

  • Top under 500: Damian Montevecchio

  • Top under 100: Reed Miller 

Photos provided by University Photographer Barbara Johnston