Students learn more than checkmates with Chess for Success
Saturday, March 03, 2012, 10:28 PM

In a room at the far end of the Oregon Convention Center is the answer to the riddle haunting parents and teachers for decades: how do you get 180 elementary school children to sit quietly for an hour? The answer: chess.

Hunched over boards, boys and girls up to fourth grade silently stared at their array of plastic royalty Saturday, plotting their next few moves. In its 46th year, the Oregon Chess for Success state tournament pitted nearly 600 kids, from kindergarten to high school, against one another in what many call a game of wits, but what Director Julie Young calls just a game.

“They come in and they see a game, and they want to play,” Young said.

And that’s the magic of Chess for Success, a program based in Oregon and Washington’s neediest schools, although anyone can join. The program has grown each year, with 70 schools in 16 school districts participating.

Kids train in after-school programs run by teachers or volunteers, meeting twice a week for six months. Chess for Success has participated in research that shows chess can boost test scores and improve critical thinking skills. That’s important for kids who come from poor families, are in special education classes or have behavior problems.

The chess players also learn life skills, Young said. For instance, once you touch a chess piece, you must play that piece. It’s one of the first rules kids learn in chess, but impulse control is something even adults struggle with sometimes. They also learn delayed gratification and long-term planning, young said, because chess strategy requires you to visualize your end goal to make your first move.

“Because it’s so complex, it keeps them engaged,” Young said.

Jacky Zeng, 10, joined the Creston School team — the Creston Eagles — because he likes the complexity.

“It was kind of interesting to me in that it was different than checkers and I needed a challenge,” Zeng said.

Zeng picked it up over the summer, while his teammate, Hurricane Mentawai, 11, started playing four years ago. To him, it’s the mental equivalent of Brazilian jujitsu, which he’s been practicing even longer. Mentawai won all five of his games at regionals, and continued the streak into his first match Saturday morning. When he tries to explain why he likes chess, his answer is modest for a boy who dunks his head in ice cold water before competing.

“You can move your pieces anywhere and most games you can’t do that,” Mentawai said.

While many kids drop out by middle school, and even fewer continue into high school – only 20 competed Saturday – chess can change lives. Assistant coach at Harrison Park School Ralph Leftwich, a former Intel employee, grew up playing chess, so when he found out the school had a club, he asked to volunteer. Leftwich is passionate about his teams’ successes. A special education student in his club won two matches, and it meant the world to her.

“It was fantastic. She was so happy,” Leftwich said, also beaming. “And she doesn’t have the easiest life.”

Only 5 to 10 percent of chess players worldwide are female, and only 37 percent of Chess for Success players are girls, Young said. But, that number keeps increasing, along with the waiting list of schools wanting to join the program. Unfortunately, Young said the organization can only expand when it raises enough money.

A crime, if you ask Leftwich.”It’s helping the kids so much, there’s no reason every school in a high needs area shouldn’t have it.”

Elementary school
1. Forest Park
2. Hayhurst
3. Jacob Wismer
Middle school
1. Stoller
2. Coquille Valley
3. Tie: Winterhaven and Hosford
K-4 Individual
1. Marshall Xu, Forest Park
2. Tie: Leonardo Sun, Hoover; Ankur Moolky, Alberta Ryder
3. Tie: Praveer Sharan, Oak Creek; Duncan Soiffer, French American; Colin Liu, Jacob Wismer; Jeffery Sun, Hoover; Joshua Grabinsky, Coquille Valley; Nate Hicken, Edy Ridge; Sean Uan-xo-li, Catlin Gabel; Nathan Merrill, Middleton; Carson Woods, MA Lynch; Kaspar Czuk, Alameda
K-5 Individual
1. Tie: Seth Talyansky, Portland Jewish Academy; Liam Booth, home school
2. Avi Gupta, Catlin Gabel
3. Tie: Tommy Case, Adams; Jake Winker, Hayhurst; Marino Santoro, Harbor Lights; Andrew Sheiman, Forest Park; Townsend Broad, Winterhaven; Nathan Berres, Vernon; Andy Nguyen, Edy Ridge; James Hansen, Middleton; Ben Richards, Patterson; Max Fabrycki, Alliance Charter
6th Grade Individual
1. Leo Deng, West Sylvan
2. Tie: Ethan Allison, home school; Josiah Perkins, Coquille Valley; Zoe Haupt, Roosevelt Elementary (Klamath Falls)
3. Justin Bagoyo, Whitford
7th Grade Individual
1. Tie: Venkat Doddapaneni, Stoller; James Chen, Leslie
2. Tie: Ashwin Sah, Stoller; Gabriel Skoro, Skyline; PavanThakkar, OES; Simon Venter, Roosevelt Middle; Kian Patel, Access
3. Tie: Valentin Molchanov, Whitford; Rahul Majmudar, OES; Nathan Jewell, Robert Gray; Preston Fenimore, Astor; Kaden Johnson, Coquille Valley; Siddharth Suri, Access; Sophia Dossin, Roosevelt Middle; Nicholas Roseborough, Leslie Middle; Seth Houchins, Neah Kah Nie; Chase Snodgrass, The Dalles Middle
8th Grade Individual
1. Aaron Grabinsky, Coquille Valley
2. Tie: Clemen Deng, West Sylvan; Cameron Kocher, Whitford
3. Luke Hutchinson, Beaumont
High School Individual
1. Dmitri Murphy, Riverdale
2. Tie: Alex Piatski, Tigard; Jack Dale, Pleasant Hill


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