Children work to piece together winning moves

Youngsters put their skills to the test at chess championship

February 19, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

Eight-year-old Kevin Wang waited calmly when his young opponent forgot to hit his time clock after moving. He shared his pencil so they could both "annotate" the match, or write down all the moves.

But when his outgunned adversary seemed to be doing his best to steer the match to a draw, Kevin had had enough. He finished the boy off, cornering the king with two rooks.

Kevin, a third-grader from Potomac, was one of 320 kids who competed at the Maryland State Scholastic Team Chess Championship yesterday in Cockeysville.

Huddled over tables filled with stray chess pieces and boards in a crowded but quiet middle school cafeteria, youngsters from 5 to 18 made their moves, and plotted, hoping for the checkmate that would boost their U.S. Chess Federation rating or help their team win the tournament.

At stake were state titles in four divisions: high school, middle school, elementary and primary (kindergarten through third grade).

Although he has played chess for only two years, Kevin is one of the top players nationally in his age group, having placed fourth in his division at the national championships last year in Atlanta. He recently passed the 1,500-point mark, giving him a rating that rivals many skilled adult players.

"It's fun, and, like, it can teach you to think well in other subjects like math," Kevin said after winning his first match of the day. "You can use numbers better and you think, like, of math."

Organizers said teams came from as far away as Washington County and the Eastern Shore to compete.

Although the tournament brought together a diverse group of kids, they all seemed to speak fluent chess. They could be overheard discussing the merits of "the Sicilian defense" or the "King's knight variation," or the four-move checkmate.

Michael Regan, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and an organizer of the tournament, said that's because "chess is universal."

"And the great thing about it is that for younger kids, it shows them that if they work at something, they will get better," he said.

Between games, David Gilliam, the chess coach for the Mitchellville School, a K-7 private math, science and technology school in Bowie, eagerly went over another player's game with Ryan Robinson, 5, and Molly Folks, 6.

As the two girls alternated between listening and looking around for the pizza that was supposed to arrive any minute, he extolled the virtues of chess for young people and its huge growth in elementary schools in recent years.

"Playing chess at an early age benefits learning, especially math and reading," Gilliam said. "It helps them develop planning skills, problem-solving skills, pattern recognition, and it helps them learn focus and concentration."

Ryan's mother, Shawn Robinson, agreed with Gilliam, but said that her kindergartner likes chess for another reason.

"She's teaching me to play," said Robinson, a Glendale resident. "It's interesting to learn from a 5-year-old, but she has a good handle on it, and she's a very good teacher."

Ryan said she loves to begin the game playing with white pieces, and she especially loves beating her mother and grandmother.

"I beat her last night," Ryan said yesterday of her mother. "I like to win."

Tyrone Blake, a junior at Aberdeen High School, said he lost in the first round because his opponent "had more pawns than me in the end."

He appreciated the similarities between chess and basketball or football.

"It teaches you strategy," said Blake, 16. "You have to sit down and think about what to do next, and if you mess up, you think about what you did wrong. If you're good, that's what you have to do in basketball and football, too."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

Winning teams

State Champions in the Ninth Annual Maryland State Scholastic Team Chess Championship:

High school: Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School

Middle school: Tie - Takoma Park Middle School and Herbert Hoover Middle School (Rockville)

Elementary school: Cold Spring Elementary School (Potomac)

Primary: Riderwood Elementary School

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