Former Tennessee Tech dean, chess aficionado honored with campus chess table dedication

 Tennessee Tech Chess Club President Austin Jerrolds, left, and retired Arts and Sciences Dean Paul Semmes, right, compete in a friendly match at the newly dedicated chess table outside Henderson Hall as Interim Dean Jeff Roberts provides encouragement.
 Tennessee Tech Chess Club President Austin Jerrolds, left, and retired Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Paul Semmes, right, compete in a friendly match at the newly dedicated chess table outside Henderson Hall as Interim Dean Jeff Roberts provides encouragement. 

Tennessee Tech University recently made a move that would make any chess master proud. 

A permanently installed chess table on Centennial Plaza was dedicated to former Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Paul Semmes, who served for 28 years as advisor for Tech’s Chess Club before retiring in 2021.

“This is like the tables you see in New York City’s Central Park and other large parks across the country. Those locations are convenient for hosting tournaments or more casual and spontaneous multiple-player events,” Semmes said in conversation immediately prior to the dedication.

Austin Jerrolds, a senior computer engineering major and president of Tech’s Chess Club, said, “It’s nice to have one like that right here on our campus, not only for serious players but also to introduce the game to others.”

Prior to the pandemic and with the influence of Semmes, Tech hosted Tennessee Chess Association-sanctioned individual and team state championship tournaments for K-12 students and awarded University Service Scholarships to the first- and second-place winners of the high school sections.

Semmes, who is still active in the Tennessee Chess Association, serving on its board of directors as scholastic coordinator, says he hopes to see that level of enthusiasm for the game return to campus post-pandemic.

“Tech hosted the 2020 team tournament on Feb. 8 and planned to host the individual’s tournament on March 21, but it was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So 2019 was the last year we were able to host both the individual and team tournaments,” he said.

Tech hosted the Individual Championships for 22 years, from 1998 through 2019, and the Team Championships for 17 years, from 2004 through 2020.

With homebound people looking for hobbies, however, individual interest in chess seemed to grow during the pandemic, Semmes said, as evidenced by the rise in online games, videos, and blogs about all topics related to the game – and don’t forget the popularity of the streaming television show The Queen’s Gambit.  

“The show is a fictional account, but there are elements in it that are modeled on truth. Personally, however, I became interested in chess during the Bobby Fischer years,” Semmes said. Fischer in 1964 became the only grandmaster to win the U.S. Championship with a perfect score and won the World Chess Championship in 1972.

Semmes joined his local chess club when he was in high school in Savannah, Ga., and quickly became hooked on the game, he said. Semmes won the Savannah Chess Club’s annual championship several times and was the city champion.

“While I was in high school, a non-military Soviet ship came to Savannah, and I was part of a chess match held on the ship, organized between the Savannah Chess Club and the ship’s officers. It was the first friendly Soviet ship to visit the U.S.,” he said.

That’s not the only unusual place Semmes played chess in high school. He played three times during visits to the state prison at Reidsville, Ga., once as part of a chess match organized by the prison’s chess club.

While still in his career at Tech, Semmes was twice the Tennessee Senior Co-Champion. 

“I tied for first place in the Tennessee State Championship for players 50 and older in 2011 and 2017,” he explained.

Since 2000, he has served as an official chess tournament director at more than 200 sections – which includes both rated (sanctioned by the U.S. Chess Federation) and unrated tournaments, mostly scholastic tournaments for K-12 students.

Semmes served as an assistant tournament director at the 2003 National Elementary Championship held in the convention space at Gaylord Opryland Hotel. 

“Four players from Putnam County competed in that tournament, including one ranked in the top 100 in the U.S. for his age, and the winner of that championship was Fabiano Caruana, who is the 2022 U.S. Chess Champion and is currently leading the 2023 U.S. championship. He also currently ranks second in the world,” he said.

While Semmes didn’t have the chance to meet Caruana as a child at that tournament, he said he still finds it interesting that a future U.S. champion and world champion challenger was in that tournament. 

For four years in the early 2000s, Semmes wrote a bi-weekly chess column for the Herald-Citizen. 

“I was inspired by a friend in Crossville who was writing a column for the Crossville Chronicle at the time. I tried to include chess games or positions from kids playing in scholastic tournaments whenever I could,” he said.

Semmes wrote more than 100 total columns about the game during that time.

Interim Dean Jeff Roberts opened the recent dedication ceremony with remarks about how Semmes’s long-time university career is intertwined with his love of the game. 

Following the dedication, Roberts said, “We wanted to do something special for a very special dean. Paul’s dedication to Tech extends beyond what is on the plaque. It’s not everyone, for example, who would open his home to another faculty member whose family lost their home in the March 2020 tornado. The chess table, a testament to the game he loves and available for all to enjoy, seemed a fine solution.”

The dedication plaque on the table reads, “In honor of Dr. Paul Semmes for his service to Tennessee Tech, the College of Arts and Sciences and the TTU Chess Club. Dean (2007-2021); associate dean (2001-2007); physics professor (1986-2021).” 

Former physics department colleagues of Semmes, others from the College of Arts and Sciences and Tech Chess Club members attended the event.

“Maybe one day, I’ll be as famous on campus as Dammit the dog,” Semmes joked with the audience, referring to the well-known stray who roamed campus in the 1950s and is supposedly buried by the fire hydrant on the Main Quad.

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