Young chess player has all the right moves

June 03, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

When Kayla Johnson plunked her queen down on the square known in chess notation as f3, I knew she was trying to set me up for what we chess aficionados call a "fool's mate."

Kayla Johnson, all of 10 years old, who makes A's in all her classes at Cross Country Elementary School and made the honor roll the first three quarters of this school year, had correctly pegged me as a fool. But there's a limit even to my foolery. I took what I thought were the necessary steps to block the fool's mate.

Kayla, undeterred, simply adjusted her game plan. She tried for the fool's mate again. If I hadn't been watching the board carefully instead of letting my mind drift off to what it usually thinks about - which is to say wolfing down honeydips - the fool's mate would have worked. In a few minutes I had gotten a taste of what quite a few of Kayla's opponents in the Baltimore City Public School Chess Tournament have received for the past two years.

Last month Kayla won her second city public school championship. She was one of only three repeat champions and the only girl to repeat. Last year, the inaugural one for the tourney, Kayla beat four boys for the third-grade title. This year she beat two boys and two girls and took home the fourth-grade trophy.

And yesterday, she came darn close to pulling off a fool's mate on a guy who's been playing chess a good 43 years. Not bad for a girl who just picked up a chess game and learned on her own.

"I looked at the game and saw how the pieces moved," Kayla told me yesterday. That was two years ago. Like any good player, Kayla looked to improve her game. That's why she decided to join the chess club at Cross Country, which is coached by teacher Daniel Katz.

"I knew how to play chess," Kayla said when explaining why she joined Cross Country's chess club, "and I wanted to enhance my skills."

And what skills has Kayla learned? Well, how to pull off a fool's mate for one. And some others.

Katz "taught us different moves like pins, forks, and discovered check," Kayla said. In other words, some of the things she was trying to do to me in our first game.

In our second game, Kayla soon maneuvered her knight to the square chess aficionados know as g5. Her next move was to try to fork my rook and queen, attacking them both at the same time. If this is what she was doing in this year's city tournament and last year's, some of her poor opponents must still be wondering what hit them.

Kayla didn't fare too badly against stiffer competition either. In April, she participated in the Maryland State Girls Chess Championship. She won three games, lost two and had a draw with her opponent in one. Steven Alpern, the coordinator for the Baltimore public schools' Chess Project, said five city schools sent players to the Maryland State Girls Chess Championship.

"Even though we were competing against private schools and schools with long-standing chess programs," Alpern said in an e-mail, "two of our schools were able to place in their divisions. Federal Hill Elementary, coached by Patsy Andrews, finished second in the primary (K-3) division and Woodhome Elementary/Middle, coached by Gregory Martin, placed third in the middle school division. Daisha Robinson, a sixth grader at Woodhome, finished as the top unrated player in the entire tournament and placed fourth overall."

Cross Country, Alexander Hamilton Elementary School and Curtis Bay Elementary School were the other three city schools that sent players to the Maryland State Girls Chess Championship.

Alpern said 140 players from 25 city schools participated in last year's tournament. This year, there were 154 players from 43 schools.

"In our second year we've experienced a lot of interest, success and enthusiasm on the part of kids and parents," Alpern said. Next year the Chess Project might send students to play in the Maryland state chess championships, according to Alpern. Seven or eight of those players might get a leg up: they've received scholarships to attend a chess camp at Park School the last week in July. Yes, Kayla will be one of them.

"My parents were glad when I won the second time," Kayla said. "They were going to send me to a chess camp that costs $375, but I was a repeat winner and I got the scholarship."

In addition to a trophy and a scholarship, Kayla also got her own chess set and a spiffy T-shirt which she proudly sported around Cross Country yesterday. "Baltimore City Schools Chess Project 2006," it reads.

When Kayla's not playing chess or teaching her younger brother the game (she has two older brothers) she is playing field hockey, softball or soccer. Or watching her favorite television shows, which include Spongebob Squarepants, CSI and Everybody Hates Chris.

But next May, you'll know where to find her: in the BCPSS Chess Tournament, turning her opponents into whompin' fodder.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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