Despite his status as an International Chess Master with more checkmates under his belt than probably anyone in Shelby Charter School’s history, Daniel Rensch’s students didn’t really sit up and take notice until he landed a role as a consultant in a Hollywood film.
Rensch was recently invited to Los Angeles to direct chess scenes in the upcoming independent film “Life of a King,” starring Cuba Gooding Jr.
The students’ excitement at the small charter school in Tonto Village waned only slightly when they learned Rensch wasn’t actually starring in a high-octane action film.
“I must admit, when I told them I would be missing chess classes because I was helping with a movie in Hollywood, the kids asked what movie. My brother (a teacher at the school) quickly said, “The Avengers Part 2!” Rensch said. “Obviously, the kids were floored and eventually, after lots of jokes, we revealed the truth that the film was about chess. They were still impressed, but not as much as if I really was playing the Hulk in the sequel to the Avengers.”
Rensch and his business partner David Pruess applied their years of teaching and chess experience on the film’s set, helping direct chess scenes and teach Gooding and other leading actors how to play. “Many of them had very little, if any, experience playing chess,” he said. “We were very impressed by their commitment and ability to learn the game.”
Rensch’s job also included making sure game play was accurate, playing director alongside the real director during all chess scenes.
“Basically, it was our job to let the director know if any of the scenes messed up the chess aspect in anyway. There were many mistakes, and I even got yelled at by the director at one point for interrupting.”
Rensch said he constantly checked each chessboard to assure they had legal chess moves.
“The actors would constantly mess with the pieces and sometimes, if they didn’t know how to play, the positions would get, well, weird,” he said. “So in between scenes, David and I were running in and out of the set, resetting boards, making sure the boards that were involved in the scene were setup back to the exact position they were in the last take.”
“Lots of little things like that are really important to keep the movie authentic,” he added.
Luckily, as the film went on, the actors started understanding how to play chess for real, “which was a really cool experience for David and I who are, by nature, chess teachers.”
Ironically, Rensch was inspired to take up chess after watching a movie as a child. While he had learned how to move the pieces at age 6, he did not look at a chessboard again until age 10 and didn’t become serious about the game until watching the film “Searching for Bobby Fisher.”
Rensch said it was the “perfect storm” and after he caught the “chess bug,” he was hooked.
Later, Rensch and his grandfather, Steven Kamp, started an after-school chess program at the Shelby School. In the spring of 1996, the team won its first national championship.
In the next few years, Rensch won nine state and national chess titles and at the age of 14, was named a National Master. He became an International Chess Master at age 23, the second highest title in chess, second only to International Grand Master. Rensch remains the only Arizona-born International Chess Master.
The school also won dozens of state and national titles. The school remains the only scholastic chess team ever to win three national championships, doing so by taking the title in the primary, elementary and junior high championships.
The school also produced several chess experts, two Master level players and one International Chess Master.
Rensch started American Chess Events, LLC while in high school. The company taught chess in schools and offered private lessons.
In the spring of 2009, he accepted an offer to be the director of content and professional relations for chess.com — a chess Web site with more than 6 million members. When the film’s producers asked the marketing director of the United States Chess Federation to recommend consultants for the movie, he suggested Rensch and Pruess, an International Chess Master.
Asked what it was like to work with Gooding, Rensch said, “Super cool! Surreal! He was super nice! Very respectful of our chess skills and an amazing actor!”