In chess and in life, Puyallup soldier killed in Niger ‘used his time well’
To the people who knew him, Bryan Black lived his life the same way he played chess.
He was brave. He was clever. He was driven.
Now, two concrete chess tables will serve as a long-lasting memorial to the Army staff sergeant, who died in an ambush in Niger last year.
“We, as a family, remember how he died — fighting for his country," said Black's father, Hank. "But Bryan was so much more than just an army medic, just a (Special Forces) soldier. He was also a chess player.”
Family, friends and community members gathered July 5 in Pioneer Park in Puyallup to witness the official unveiling of the chess tables and to remember Black, who grew up in Puyallup and graduated from Puyallup High School in 2000.
“We choose not to live in the loss of Bryan, but what we have gained from Bryan, and part of that gain is chess and the amazing benefits that chess bestows on those who play the game — benefits we saw in Bryan’s life,” Hank Black said. “That is one of the reasons why we’re so very grateful of this memorial of chess tables, which speaks not of loss, but of gain and friendship and fun.”
Black loved chess. But when he first started in fourth grade, it was a different story, his father remembered.
“The first year he played chess he was a little guy and he kept losing all his matches," Hank Black said. "He was out in the parking lot, not crying, but he was so mad.”
He told his son he’d get better if he studied, so Black spent the summer doing just that.
The next year, he became a chess champion and kept playing. In high school, he won the state team championship as first board — usually reserved for the best player on the team — with the Puyallup High Chess Club and placed seventh at the national team tournament. He also joined the Tacoma Chess Club.
After graduating high school, Black attended Central Washington University. He moved to California, where he met his wife, Michelle, and had two children, Ezekiel and Isaac. In 2009, he enlisted in the Army and became a Green Beret and Special Forces medic.
On Oct. 4, Black was serving in Niger when ISIS fighters ambushed him and three comrades. He was killed, along with Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright and Sgt. La David T. Johnson.
“In chess, you’ll often be checkmated,” Hank Black said at the dedication ceremony. “But you keep playing the game because the benefits of the game far outweigh the disappointment you feel over losing.
"Life is perhaps in some way a lot similar to chess. When Bryan was killed in action, our lives were checkmated. But although our lives now are so different, life goes on.”
Puyallup held a memorial service for Black, but some wanted a more permanent memorial.
City Councilman Tom Swanson and Puyallup Parks Foundation manager Therese Pasquier began brainstorming memorial ideas with Black's mother, Karen.
“She shared with us Bryan’s love for the game of chess and what a difference that had made in his life and his development," Swanson said. "So much of what he was able to do as a hero serving our country was from the lessons he learned in that game.”
It took only a few weeks to raise $7,500 from the community and another $7,500 in a donation by Erik Anderson, founder of First Move: America’s Foundation for Chess, for the two concrete chess tables, built-in metal benches and a large commemorative plaque for Black.
At the dedication ceremony, guest speakers Anderson and U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, spoke about Black’s heroism. The 562nd Air Force Band played for the crowd. Young members of Black's family cut a ceremonial ribbon and revealed the tables.
Yellow happy face balloons blew in the wind, a reminder of Black, who had a happy face tattoo on his right leg. Other family members plan to get the same tattoo in his memory.
At the ceremony, Anderson recalled Black, then 18, playing Bill Schill, the 2000 Washington State chess champion. He beat Schill, handing him his first loss during his reign as champion.
“I thought the really nice comment that Bill made, because it was an interesting time control, was that Bryan used his time well,” Anderson said. “And I think we know that — that Bryan used his time well.”