5-year-old Oak Hall student already a national champ in chess


Published: Monday, December 23, 2013 at 11:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 23, 2013 at 11:30 a.m.

Five-year-old Grayson Cooke stood next to a trophy nearly as tall as himself, showing with his hand that it meets him only at eye level.

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Oak Hall School won its 9th national chess championship at the United States Chess Federation K-12 Championships held at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando on Dec. 13-15. Grayson Cooke is shown next to his trophy.

Courtesy of Oak Hall School

"He is so proud of his trophy," his mother, Erinn, said.

Grayson earned the award by winning the national kindergarten championship in chess at the U.S. Chess Federation's National Championship held in Orlando from Dec. 13-15. He also anchored the championship-winning kindergarten team from the Oak Hall School — the school's ninth national chess championship.

Taught by his father, Grayson started playing at age 4.

"He has always been competitive, and we always like playing games, so this was just a good thing to do," his father Brian Cooke said.

Grayson's parents enrolled him in the chess club at Oak Hall School after learning about the club's reputation.

Chess coach Tim Tusing has led the team for 16 years. The after-school club consists of about 70 members from kindergarten to fifth grade.

In this year's competition, in addition to the first-place kindergarten team, Oak Hall's first-grade team finished third, its second-grade team placed eighth, and its third-grade team placed fifth.

The competition consisted of about 1,474 students on 500 teams. The tournament names a champion for each grade from kindergarten to 12.

Though the school has won in the national championships nine times, it never before had won an individual first-place award.

Because Tusing considered the act so unlikely, he told his students he would kiss a pig on stage in front of the school if anyone ever won.

"So now I've got to unfortunately locate a pig," Tusing said. He mused about how he would find a pig at such short notice.

Tusing said most of the kids start from scratch, though some come in already having a grasp of the basic rules.

Grayson was already familiar with the game when he joined the club, Tusing said.

"He came to chess club a lot. He has been working pretty hard," he said.

Grayson's father said it took his son a while to get a grip on the rules. The task took a lot of repetition, he said.

But now Grayson plays with a clock and makes notations with each move he makes. He's got the board memorized.

"On your first move, you should go for E4 — that's your best move," he said. "But there are other moves that are not so good."

Grayson is focused on the strategies behind the game. He chooses which side of the board to play, not by picking his favorite color but by the opportunities presented from each.

"I like playing better in white because there are two different openings," he said.

But his real motivation to play is less serious.

"The goal of chess is about having fun," he said, smiling.

When Grayson is not winning giant trophies in chess, he likes to play other games, too. He plays basketball, soccer, football and pingpong. He said he is good at everything except tennis.

Grayson said he plans to keep studying and practicing, even during Christmas break.

"I am going to try to win nationals next year starting now … actually starting a few days ago. I am still working for it."

The family plans to keep working with him to help him refine his skills.

"It's exponential growth when you look at how amazing these kids are. Next year is going to be tough competition," his father said.

In kindergarten, games can last anywhere from five minutes to 90, his parents said. With such a diverse range, Grayson's parents worked to help him take his time during the game.

"Our goal for him was for him to play slowly, and to think about all his moves as he is doing them," his mother said. "We know if he sits there and thinks about it, he will make all the good moves."

Tusing said learning chess helps children develop a range of skills.

"It teaches them strategy and patience," he said. Many learn the consequences of their actions, he said, since a chess piece cannot be moved once the player has removed his or her hand.

Learning to focus on the game also has helped some students practice behaving more calmly.

"Some of the kids that are very hyper slow down and control themselves," he said.

Motivational games and support from Lower School Head Kathryn Sheffey as well as chess club assistants Lauren Leadingham and Arthur Edwards have helped the club reach such a high level of achievement.

Tusing seemed impressed at how quiet and focused the young kids appear when he walks into the chess club room at Oak Hall.

"I think of them as little adults," he said.

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