Library Features...

Teaching Life Lessons at a Chess Club
Branch: Aptos

Dana Mackenzie
Dana Mackenzie, two-time chess
champion of North Carolina, has
been volunteering as a mentor
at the chess club for youth
at Aptos Library since 1996

For nearly two decades something special has been going on Friday afternoons at the Aptos branch of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries. Over that time, hundreds of young people — ranging in age from 6 to college level — have come to the weekly chess club to learn the game and hone their skills.

"Anybody can come," said Dana Mackenzie, the volunteer who oversees the club each week. "There are no requirements; you don't pay or anything — just show up and play."

Mackenzie, a freelance science writer, brings a solid background to the chess club, which he's been involved in since 1996. He's played in tournaments since the age of 12 and was twice the state champion of North Carolina before moving here. He also gives online talks about chess at

When he arrived in Santa Cruz he contacted the Volunteer Center as a way of getting involved in the community, and listed chess as one of his interests. As fate would have it, Steve Kangas, who started the Aptos chess club, was leaving and Mackenzie stepped right in.

In a typical week 10 to 12 youths will come by the club, which meets from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. in the library's meeting room. Mackenzie gives a 15-minute lesson to illustrate a particular chess issue, then everyone plays while he observes and offers suggestions.

"Chess exposes kids to logical thought," he said. "It teaches them to plan ahead and that what you do has consequences, which is a good idea for kids this age. I've also heard from parents that it helps their children concentrate better."

Aptos Branch Manager Julie Richardson agreed. "It's a great opportunity for children to challenge themselves by learning new skills and socializing with their peers," she said. "Dana is a good role model and a wonderful teacher. He makes it fun and builds their confidence, which is really important."

Richardson added that the chess club is an example of how the libraries are increasingly using their public meeting spaces to provide programs of interest for all age groups.

Mackenzie said the club has a core group of a half-dozen regulars and others who drop in, and that the kids who show up are positive about the experience.

"I had one young girl who said she liked to come to the chess club 'because it's my happy place,'" he said. "I want this to be a happy place for all the kids."

story by Mike Wallace