Forgive Craig Jones if he's a little down about his team's early exit from the recent playoffs.
"I felt like we were going to win it all. I'm still sick about it, to be honest with you," he says.
In the pre-season rankings his team was at the bottom of its division and the entire league. In the fourth week of the season, Jones' Carolina Cobras faced an obviously superior team -- superior on paper, anyway. The Cobras held their opponent scoreless and went on a roll to win seven straight games, take their regular season divisional championship and fizzle in the second round of the playoffs.
"I don't know why," Jones says of his team's disappointing fade.
Jones' fall rollercoaster ride wasn't football. The excitement was about chess and the Triangle's entry in the 4-year-old United States Chess League. The league is an online competition that features grandmasters (the nation's absolute best) and players from lower classifications in weekly matches between teams from 14 cities across the United States.
Jones, 48, brings a football coach's enthusiasm, rhetoric and size to the game that bit him in the 11th grade. Today, he is a full-time chess coach and teacher in the Triangle. He teaches privately and in local schools, holds workshops, summer camps and strategy seminars as he pushes to make the high-tech Triangle a chess hotbed.
"We have the demand [of student-age players] but not the supply [of teachers]," says Jones, who grew up on a farm near Chambersburg, Pa.
Sitting behind his chess board and computer in his Chapel Hill home, Jones dissects a championship season that might have been while his cat, Misty, and golden retriever, Lilly, patrol a study lined with chess books.
Talent, consistency and chemistry were the keys to the online competition that had the Cobras hooking up Wednesday nights nationwide on laptops at Duke University's Bryan Center. The Cobras' top two players -- Duke undergraduates Lev Milman and Oleg Zaikov -- are natives of former Soviet Union countries where chess is ingrained in the culture. Jones and Ron Simpson, a computer engineer in the Research Triangle, rounded out the team.
One advantage for the Cobras was that their top four players competed in seven of the 10 regular season matches. Personal and professional obligations frequently forced top players from opposing teams to miss scheduled matches. Team chemistry was also good, even though this fall was the first time together for many players.
"We were always seen as an underdog. We were just trying to survive," Jones says of the start of the season. "After we beat New York [in September], we just kept winning."
Thanks to his wife's job as a librarian at N.C. State University, Jones can follow his obsession full time. Among the schools where he teaches are Durham Academy, Voyager Academy and Triangle Day School.
The key, he says, is getting kids to wrap their minds around the game early on when they don't resist change like adults do. "An 8-year-old [chess player] changes naturally," he says.
Despite the lack of teachers, the Triangle has potential as a power in scholastic chess. "It's getting there. It's slow," Jones says.
And it can be done. Look at Tuscon, Ariz., which is considered one of the nation's top scholastic chess hotbeds. Why?
The headmistresses at three of the private schools in Tuscon did their elementary school student teaching at Hunter College School in the 1960s where chess remains part of the curriculum.
In the Triangle chess fights a cultural war. Basketball, soccer and piano lessons have precedence over chess, which doesn't have the traction it does in Europe, Jones says. Chess is also a difficult and intellectually demanding pursuit.
Still, there are positive local signs. In 2007, Durham Academy won the K-6 national title under Jones' tutelage in the U.S. Chess Federation competition. Sam Ferguson, a second grader at Morrisville Elementary and one of Jones' students, recently won the national championship for second graders.
Internet and online games are increasing interest in chess. Jones says he first went online to play chess in 1992. Sometimes he waited two hours to find a match. On a recent Friday night at one online site there were 7,000 matches in progress.
As a coach Jones already has a worried eye trained on the approaching fall season. Milman, his top player, graduates this spring. Zaikov remains for another year. But, Jones says, "Next year looks grim."