City students making big moves in chess

Game is growing momentum as city students raise national profile

May 30, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Some of Baltimore City's fiercest student competitors aren't cheered down a field or a court, but sit perfectly still in a dead-silent room, internalizing their every move.

The student members of the Baltimore Kids Chess League have made big moves across the boards in recent tournaments, bringing home 13 national trophies and posting some of the highest rankings in the league's history.

"Chess is growing in leaps and bounds, and Baltimore City is lucky in that we're just so ahead of the game," said Steve Alpern, a city schools retiree and the league's commissioner. "We're inspiring people to start up, because of the success in Baltimore."

Teams from four city schools took national trophies in their divisions last month in the National K-9 Chess Championships in Columbus, Ohio. Cross Country Elementary/Middle School finished second out of 34 teams; Woodhome Elementary/Middle School took a seventh-place team trophy; and students from Hamilton Elementary/Middle School and Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy West finished in the top 20 in their sections.

The recent accomplishments represent a growing profile for the city's student chess players.

When Jordan Best was in second grade, he followed the example of his brother Ronald — who holds the highest United States Federation of Chess rating ever obtained by a city student — and joined the league.

"I wanted to beat him," Jordan, 10, said. "And then I just wanted to get better."

The Hamilton Elementary third-grader, who won the state title in his division last year, hasn't quite caught up to his brother's rating, but said he has bigger plans.

As he awaited his opponents last week at the chess league's citywide elementary school championship tournament at the Johns Hopkins University, he said wants the organization's highest title: grand master.

"When I sit down, I think I'm going to win," Jordan said, and described his opening move, called the accelerated dragon. "I try to win in the first 10 moves."

He met that goal at the May 24 tournament, adding the title of "Third-Grade Citywide Champion" to his resume.

The Baltimore Kids Chess League, a nonprofit formed in 2004 as an afterschool chess program, supplies coaches and equipment to 1,000 students at 60 schools throughout the city. The program, supported by the Abell Foundation, is among the few of its size in the country that includes students from elementary through high school.

Alpern, who spent three decades in the city school system, said chess is an extracurricular program that shows results both in and outside the classroom.

"I've seen a lot of good programs come and go, and this is a program that's making a difference," he said. "It needs to be supported and expanded. We have kids who represent progress."

More chess teams are emerging from across the city. Edgecombe Elementary School in the low-income Park Heights community is one of them. Since forming in 2009, the team has steadily improved in city and state competitions. The school won three first-place trophies at the Hopkins citywide tournament.

"We're one of the shining lights of our community because people don't expect that from us," said Frederick Strickland, Edgecombe's coach. "Park Heights might not be considered a mecca for chess, but at Edgecombe, we have kids that play chess at a high level, and they do achieve at school."

The city's most prestigious academic institutions are taking notice.

The Center for Talented Youth at Hopkins, a league partner, hosted the elementary school championship at the university. Center spokesman Charles Beckman said the tournament is a way to spot potential candidates for the program.

The Center for Talented Youth, which researches and offers programs in advanced education, issues full scholarships and admits students based on advanced testing.

While gaining admission might be a challenge for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Beckman said, the center is exploring the option of testing in nonverbal, spatial ability — critical skills for math, science and engineering. Activities such as chess can help prepare students for the task.

"This is just a room of little, bright kids, and we're an institution for big, bright kids," he said as he watched 150 city students compete at the recent tournament. "We see them as undergraduates someday."

erica.green@baltsun.com

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