Published: Tuesday, January 30, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 29, 2007 at 11:56 p.m.
Cameron Fortner bows his head in concentration, while his opponent pushes a pawn toward him.
The 5-year-old chess player considers his options, clenching his fists to keep from making a hasty move.
Forethought is the winning formula for Fortner and teammates Andrew Clark, John Gillen and Aadil Qamar, all 6 years old and students at Oak Hall School. The team took home the national championship trophy for the kindergarten division of the National Scholastic K-12 Collegiate Chess Championship recently.
Some members of the team began training for the competition as early as last summer.
"The hardest thing to do is to slow them down," said Tim Tusing, who coaches the Oak Hall chess team. "Beginners try to fly through the game, taking whatever move they see. But those who are competitive study the board."
Learning the game of chess stimulates logic, develops skills in critical thinking, pattern recognition, self-control and self-confidence, say education experts.
In one study, reading scores among chess-playing students in a South Bronx school saw statistically significant improvement compared to reading scores in the control groups, according to Dr. Stuart Margulies, the study's author.
Margulies suggested the connection was due to shared cognitive processes in the two activities, such as decoding, thinking, comprehending and analyzing.
As a result, in the last decade or so, school systems across the country have introduced more than 250,000 children a year to the basics of the game, said Dean J. Ippolito, an International Chess Master and instructor since 1988.
The Oak Hall chess club, which began 10 years ago with six children, now has 75 members between kindergarten and fifth grade.
Tusing, who sketches potential moves on the board with a magic marker, teaches his pupils that chess is a lot like life; there are no do-overs, so they need to be careful.
"I tell them it's like crossing the street," Tusing said. "They have to look both ways."
"What happens if you walk out in front of traffic, Cameron?" he asks.
"You're dead," Fortner said.
Fortner points to the chess pieces, explaining that "you touch it, you move it."
Practicing this way shows the players the ramifications of their moves, Tusing said.
But don't be fooled into thinking chess is all work and no play.
"They have no idea how big their win is," said Haydee Clark, Andrew's mother. "They just love playing."
Clark, who grew up playing chess with her family, said her son inherited both a love for the game and a 100-year-old chess box.
The chess team says they play almost every day.
Qamar said he started playing with his brothers and sisters when he was in preschool, but now he challenges his father.
"I must have beaten my dad a billion times!" he said, demonstrating a "castling" move, in which the king defends itself with a rook.
Terrie Gillen said her son, John, is obsessed with the game.
"Every spare moment he wants to play chess - on the computer at home, or at optional after-school practices, sometimes with students in the second or third grade," Gillen said. "The other day he played after school ended at 2:45 until 5:30 in the evening. It's unreal!"
She added that she is thrilled with the way chess has taught John to sit still, and how his passion has inspired his sister to play.
The winning four have motivated their classmates, as well.
"I quit last year," kindergarten student Grant Pita said. "But I felt left out, so I came back and am having fun."
Above all, a good attitude is paramount, Tusing said.
"We stress sportsmanship," he said. "When they lose, they don't cry or throw fits. When they win, there's no gloating."
"Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose," Fortner said.
But he always has fun, he said.
Chess in schools
The Alachua County Scholastic Chess Association coordinates regular tournaments for students in elementary and middle schools and several schools offer chess as an after-school activity.
J.J. Finely, Williams, Littlewood, Hidden Oak and Talbot elementary schools, along with Lincoln and Howard Bishop middle schools have teams that participate in the tournaments. For more information, go to http://acshess.com or call George Pyne at 373-9110.
Each year one elementary school in Alachua County hosts the Chess Challenge and all students in the school learn about the game of chess. Chiles Elementary School will host the challenge on May 18 and more than 50 guest players will be invited to face the students in a simultaneous tournament. Each student in the school will receive a chess set.
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