Don Smallidge plays a game of chess this week with 9-year-old Makenzie Burton-Wing at Spectrum Generations’ Muskie Community Center in Waterville. Smallidge is a member of the Waterville Chess Club, which is encouraging young people like Makenzie to play the game. Photo courtesy of Sara Wing

Don Smallidge has been a chess enthusiast all his life and can’t imagine ever stopping.

At 74, he loves playing with children as well as adults, recalling the first time he picked up a chess piece.

“I started at age 12, just a local kid,” he said. “A friend showed me how to play and I’ve been playing ever since. I took to it like a duck out of water, I would say.”

Smallidge, a member of the Waterville Chess Club, was sitting Tuesday in the solarium at Spectrum Generations’ Muskie Community Center in Waterville where the club recently started meeting at 2 p.m. Wednesdays. It also meets at 5 p.m. Tuesdays at Five Guys restaurant in Waterville and 1 p.m. Mondays at Dunkin’ Donuts on Kennedy Memorial Drive in Oakland. Members play online once a week also.

With Smallidge on Tuesday was Sandra MacDonald, Spectrum’s regional center director who is trying to encourage people of all ages, including college and high school students, to come to the center to play chess. When seniors and young people get together to play the game, both reap benefits, she said. Taking part in intergenerational activities with youth helps older people feel less isolated, generates a sense of belonging and improves their sense of well-being, for instance. Playing chess helps hone social-emotional skills, and when youth and elders get together, they tend to share stories and learn from each other which helps both feel valued, she said. Research also has shown that it helps improve student IQ, according to MacDonald.

Beyond that, playing chess helps improve memory, concentration, organizational and problem-solving skills, increases confidence and wards off dementia for seniors.


“I would love to have high school students come in and play with the seniors,” MacDonald said.

Smallidge challenged her to a game, though she hadn’t played in a long time. With a subtle sense of humor, he gently coached her on moves and offered advice as she acknowledged the particulars started to come back to her. Some people who join the club are like MacDonald in that they played when they were younger, stopped for whatever reason and then returned when they were older.

People of all levels, including beginners, are welcome to join, they said.

“Members come and go and we have people who are interested and who participate regularly,” Smallidge said.

Sponsors of the club include Champions Fitness Club, Selah Tea, Re-Books and Wild Clover Cafe & Market, all in Waterville. Players are asked to pay $2 a week and that enables them to play at any of the venues for that week. The first session is free.

“It’s kind of a sliding scale thing,” Smallidge said. “If people can’t afford it, we’re happy to let them play for free.”


The warm, sunny and carpeted room at the Muskie Center, located at 38 Gold St., has a large table with chairs, couches and even a pool table. Several chess games may be played at one time.

“We have lots of chess boards and pieces,” Smallidge said. “We encourage people to bring their own. We have extra timers, if people want to use them.”

Smallidge reflected on what he loves so much about the game:

“I like the aesthetics of the way the pieces interact,” he said. “Chess is a very complex game. What I like about it is the complexity. I’m a computer programmer so I like intellectual complexity.”

He described chess as like a game of war.

“Your intellect is engaged against the opponent and the idea is to capture their king, and they want to do the same thing to you. There’s the opening and then there’s the middle and then there’s the end game.”


One may learn chess from scratch by going to the club’s website,, he said. Those interested in attending a club session are asked to email or call the Muskie Center at 873-4745 and ask for MacDonald.

Smallidge, who retired seven years ago as a web developer for the state, says he is writing a chess program just for fun. He acknowledged that while he describes the game as complex, he doesn’t want to scare people off from joining the group.

“It’s a lot of fun and the thing is, we try not to frighten people with the complexity of the game because you can play it like checkers. You don’t have to sweat and get old while you’re doing it.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 35 years. Her columns appear here weekly. She is the author of the book “Comfort is an Old Barn,” a collection of her curated columns, published this year by Islandport Press. She may be reached at For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to

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