Chess brings 88-year-old WWII vet, high school junior together

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Thomas Meeks and Glenn Wood face off over the chess board. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Thomas Meeks and Glenn Wood face off over the chess board. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Wood is a self-taught player. He has played actively since learning the game aboard a ship while serving in the Navy during WWII. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Wood is a self-taught player. He has played actively since learning the game aboard a ship while serving in the Navy during WWII. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Meeks will be president of the Notre Dame High School Chess Club next year.  (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Meeks will be president of the Notre Dame High School Chess Club next year. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
SCOTTSDALE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

Chess. The game of kings. It’s one of the most famous board games in the world with a history stretching back hundreds of years. The goal? Checkmate. It takes patience, strategy and often sacrifice to get there. You have to be playing several moves ahead, anticipating what your opponent will do and expecting the unexpected. It's a sport of the mind.

To say chess is a mental exercise is an understatement, which is doctors and caregivers are incorporating the game into therapy for dementia patients.

That is the basis for a unique relationship between an 88-year-old World War II veteran and a Scottsdale high school student.

After splitting their last two matches, Glenn Wood and Thomas Meeks faced off again Tuesday.

Wood is a self-taught player. He has played actively since learning the game aboard a ship while serving in the Navy during WWII. That was before chess clubs were a thing. And he’s good. Very good.

“It’s fun,” Wood said. “I like to win.”

Meeks will be president of the Notre Dame Preparatory High School Chess Club next year. While Meeks has had the benefit of a coach, his opponent has been playing longer than the teen been alive. Experience is on Wood's side.

"He sure holds his own," Rich DesMarais, Meeks' coach said of Wood.

The players met when Meeks started visiting residents of the Silverado Scottsdale Memory Care Community as part of a service project.

Wood has dementia, which is described by the Alzheimer’s Association as “an overall term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person's ability to perform everyday activities.” Wood’s ongoing competition with Meeks has become part of his therapy. While there is no cure for dementia, mental stimulation – like playing chess – can help slow its progression.

"Glenn and the students have already had some amazing games and the enjoyment and benefits he gets from competitive chess are quite apparent," Dan Harrah, administrator at Silverado Scottsdale, said. “We don’t accept a dementia diagnosis. For us, it’s about giving them their purpose. And for him, that’s his purpose, is playing chess.”

But can a game really help those with dementia?

According to new and ongoing research, it's possible. Even likely.

"Mentally stimulating activities such as reading books and magazines, going to lectures, and playing games are also linked to keeping the mind sharp," according to "Preventing Alzheimer's Disease: What Do We Know?" a publication by the National Institute on Aging, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The cover even features an older pair playing chess.

"Such activities may protect the brain by establishing 'cognitive reserve,' the brain’s ability to operate effectively even when it is damaged or some brain function is disrupted," the report explains. "These activities may help the brain become more adaptable in some mental functions, so it can compensate for declines in other functions."

So while chess doesn't exactly mean checkmate for dementia, it can be a solid part of the strategy to help patients.

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