By JOYCE TSAI
The Kansas City Star
They have their cheerleaders.
They have their pep rally chants.
They even have their own rap poetry.
And, they indeed have their following.
The chess team sparks excitement at Border Star Elementary School equal to a winning high school football team.
At the pep rallies before the big tournaments, elementary school cheerleaders wave their pompoms. Signs in blue and gold are everywhere exclaiming “Go, Go, Go. We are rooting for you!” and “Win, win, win!”
Then the pint-sized players trail in. And the students chant:
“Everywhere we go,
People want to know,
Who we are,
So we tell them
We are the Chess Nuts
The mighty, mighty Chess Nuts!”
The school’s unbridled enthusiasm of chess makes it “a rarity,” said Wanda Thompson, the school’s on-site coordinator.
“The kids’ hearts and minds are in sync with (the chess players). A lot have never played chess, but most definitely get pumped up for them.”
If pumped-up pep rallies don’t jibe with the quiet, contemplative game most people imagine, attend one of the Chess Nut’s Wednesday practices after school.
Thanks to coach Dale Lombard, it’s not just about the chess. It’s really about learning each part, step-by-step, rap-and-rhyme style.
Take for instance the pawn, the smallest and slowest of pieces.
“They say we’re small,
And they say we’re slow,
One or two spaces
Is all we can go
But they’d better watch out –
We can still strike a blow.”
Or the king, the most important piece:
“The king is tallest, but he’s kind of slow,
One square at a time is the most he can go.
And move into check? Aawh! Aawh! No! No!”
Lombard wrote the raps to engage the minds of his young chess aficionados.
Mazes and puzzles teach them to strategize, and then, they graduate to full-blown chess matches.
Once a week, more than two dozen elementary school students at Border Star sit at rapt attention in front of their chessboards, at a time when many of their peers have long rushed home to watch TV or play X-Box games.
They play chess, completely unplugged.
Not a single iPod or Gameboy can be seen.
During chess practice on a recent Wednesday, the players put on their game faces — some boisterous, others finding a Zen-like state — for a game that has enthralled countless cultures through the centuries.
At the head of the table, Riley Kelly is playing Victor Cole, this week’s No. 1 and No. 2 ranked players.
They both lean into the board, soberly considering their options.
Every once and awhile, Victor lets out, an “Aw man, I didn’t see that.”
But after an intense game of 20 moves, Victor just edges her out for a win.
“It was a really close game,” said 11-year-old Riley. “The tables kept turning. Every three moves, someone else was ahead.”
Victor, also 11, stays a humble winner.
“It feels good to be No. 1,” he said. “But I don’t like to shove it in people’s faces.”
What Victor loves most about chess, is not winning, but how each of the pieces move.
“It’s like a game of strategy and war,” he said. “It’s fun to imagine you’re in war and what attack you can do on your opponent.”
That’s the classical metaphor for the game. Chess is a war fought between two armies, with the chess board as the battleground.
Or, Lombard said, a player can see it as a team sport, like football and baseball.
He tells the children, they “get to be the coach” and their goal is to “control the center of the board.”
Either way, most of the students are aware that chess is a “grown-up game,” he said. And they love that.
“It is exciting when a little bitty kid can beat an older kid or an adult. And a lot of these kids can beat their parents,” he said.
Lombard offers yet another metaphor: Chess is an equalizer. Each new game holds the promise of a Cinderella story in the making.
The chess board doesn’t discriminate, says parent volunteer Dawn Parris, whose son, Tyler, plays in the club.
“I love it because there is so much diversity here, not only with race but also gender,” she said.
Of the 26 members of the team, nearly half are female, 20 are African-American, and one is Asian-American.
“It’s clear that race and gender has nothing to do with success, and that’s a good lesson to learn at this age,” said Riley’s father, Dan Kelly.
Lombard, who coaches several other chess teams in the Kansas City School District, said the three-year old chess program at Border Star has one of the strongest participation rates.
They bring home loads of trophies because of that strong participation and parental support, Lombard said.
That’s not bad for a game that has been around since 600 A.D., first played in India and Persia, to be picked up by worldwide cultures though the years.
In these children’s minds, chess can hold its own against the myriad of high-tech influences in what Lombard calls “our instant-gratification culture of TV, video games and the Internet.”
That’s because its lessons are timeless, he said.
“Kids want to play by instinct and reflexes,” Lombard said.