To the Auburn High School Commons came 60 pairs of young eyes and minds, keen to test their mettle in tournaments of battle.
Keen to clash with worthy opponents on fields of alternating squares of black and white, where queens and bishops, knights and rooks and pawns act in service of king and cause.
Where knights drop, where mighty queens break into the open to wreak havoc in the enemy’s interior lines, where pawns sacrifice themselves in a worthy cause – and where kings sometimes fall.
Listen closely, you can almost hear the grey cells wheeling and whirring with strategies and possibilities, sounding out dire warnings of danger, happy anticipation of pending victory, and acknowledgement of contests lost.
Jordan Conner, 9, a student at Lake View Elementary School, came to the inaugural tournament Thursday, May 24 to play a fun and challenging game. Two years in, he’s already a tough guy to beat. Three times that afternoon, he checkmated his opponents, even as the one guy he struggles to beat, his father, waited to hear how it all went.
“My dad taught me to play … he kicks my butt,” Jordan said between rounds.
For tournament director Elliot Neff, a national chess master and the founder of “Chess for Life,” a national chess promoting nonprofit in Bellevue that teaches kids to play, not only is chess fun, it’s a prime vehicle for learning, too. His organization teaches the young ones not only to be better players but how to take a strategic approach to life’s challenges, how to think ahead, how to be patient, and how to work together.
“You can win in chess, you can draw in chess, or, as these kids are learning, you can learn. There’s always an opportunity to learn and improve. And if you build that resilience and grit from bad situations where you learn, that’s a life skill,” Neff said.
Using methods he has honed over decades, Neff and his coaches have helped thousands of students master their game, among them, 10 national champions and numerous regional champions.
Lake View Elementary Principal John Aiken learned to play chess when he was a boy, he said, but only when his son got involved in a chess program at school did he realize how important the critical thinking, the problem solving and the strategy could be to kids.
And that old light bulb flashed in his mind.
“I wanted to bring that back as a principal to my own kids, to my own school,”Aiken said. “So we started a chess club at Lake View Elementary. We’ve had a chess club there for three years now, and we collaborated with Mr. Neff to get it going, and we’ve been using the chess system that’s in play here today. Our kids have competed regionally and at the state level for a couple of years now.”
Then he decided to go it one better.
“I started to hear that there were chess clubs coming up in the district, and I wanted them to be able to share with us, just in the camaraderie of the play and the sportsmanship, and I wanted to have our clubs get together and do something more district-wide and community based,” Aiken said. “So, this tournament was born. This is the first round of it, and we ended up just shy of 60 kids. Mr. Neff came here to be our be tournament director. I love it, I love what it does for kids, and I love that it’s something we can grow here.”
Allison Whale, already at 10 years old, a burgeoning chess-playing fiend, finished the day with two victories and one draw.
“I think I like chess because it’s not just like a normal game, where you pick up a card and you move a piece; you use your mind and try to take other pieces. And if you make a mistake, someone else gets a chance to see the mistake,” Whale said.
Her father, Michael Whale, said she took to the game instantly.
“In state competitions, she’s there for eight to 10 hours, doesn’t break concentration, it’s amazing. I was amazed the first time she went to state, I figured after an hour she’d be bouncing off the walls, but she didn’t get bored or tired. She just loves it,” he said.