Jay Slaughter and Steve Gagner learned to play chess very differently, and that’s probably why they make such a great team.

Slaughter picked up chess when he was in middle school at Jordan Park in North Minneapolis. He took a chess class to learn how the chess pieces moved, but he’d still lose most games. But he kept going, even when he’d lose to family members, over and over.

“I like being strategic,” Slaughter said.

Gagner grew up playing chess, with his dad as his teacher.

“I’m a family-taught chess player,” Gagner said.

In the summer of 2022, Slaughter and Gagner were both at George Floyd Square doing community work. A mutual friend introduced the two. Slaughter glanced down and saw the screen on Gagner’s phone. It was a chessboard.

The two instantly bonded over chess. Gagner had Slaughter over to his house on Lyndale Avenue where a giant chess board sat in his front yard.

Steve Gagner built the chessboard outside his family’s house on Lyndale Avenue. Gagner said the chessboard is available for everyone. Photo by Melody Hoffmann

As the two were already community-minded, it didn’t take them long to start talking about tying that interest in with chess.

“I have always wanted to teach kids how to play chess,” Slaughter said. But he said he didn’t feel like he had the chops to explain the intricacies of chess to kids. But Gagner had those skills.

“We can teach community chess,” Slaughter said, recalling their quick brainstorming session.

The first two community chess classes happened in August 2022, held at the Seward Community Co-Op Friendship Store, tucked away in the cafe area. The store gave them a $50 gift certificate for snacks and drinks. A year and a half later, Slaughter and Gagner are celebrating an official partnership with the Hennepin County Library.

Steve Gagner walks around with a warm drink, answering chess players’ questions at Hosmer Library on Aug. 12, 2023.

The classes quickly outgrew the grocery store cafe. Slaughter and Gagner have been hosting community chess events at the Hosmer Library on and off over weekends since the fall of 2022, renting out rooms as they become available. They even did a stint at Central Library for a while. Parents come in and help, but by and large it’s just been Slaughter and Gagner.

“Just the two of us,” Slaughter said.

The duo and Hennepin County Library formed an official partnership due to the popularity of the chess days.

Community Chess Day will be held at Hosmer Library every Saturday from 10-12:30 p.m. for the next six weeks. Kids and young adults can pop in to play chess and learn the basics if they want expert help.

“We have an open approach to learning,” Gagner said. There are also crosswords and other chess-related activities available.

Beyond the obvious benefit of getting everyone off their screens for a bit, there are a lot of skills to be gained from learning and playing chess.

“You have to be a patient player to even learn,” Slaughter said. He also said you learn how to build a relationship with the person you are playing again, you learn a form of etiquette (yes, there is chess etiquette), and your mental health can improve by working on your critical and strategic thinking.

Jay Slaughter gets a snack for a young chess player on Aug. 12, 2023 at Hosmer Library. Photo by Melody Hoffmann

Gagner said he enjoys walking young chess players through the strategic thinking aspect of chess by asking them, “If you are going to do that, what are you going to do next?” Thinking multiple steps ahead is a must in chess.

In his travels with his family, Gagner has also found the game to be a form of communication.

“[Chess] is a universal language,” Gagner said. “It’s an equalizer.”

Hosmer Library, home of Slaughter and Gagner’s Community Chess Day, is located at 347 E 36th St. More details can be found on the Hennepin County Library website.