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Students put down the Nintendo, pick up the pawn

Asked to give a metaphor for chess, Esquire Hills Elementary School sixth grader Tao Smith said it is like everyday life.

“If you know how to play chess well you use strategies,” Smith said, “and try to predict what the other person will do next.”

Those skills carry over into everyday life, he explained.

Smith is the top-ranked member of the Esquire Hill Elementary Chess Club, which has exploded in popularity since parent Melissa Jackson proposed the idea for third- through sixth-grade students earlier this year.

“I sent a flyer home to parents, and four days later there were 25 students” signed up for the club, Jackson said.

The majority of kids who signed up already knew the basic rules of the game, she added.

The club, an affiliate of the U.S. Chess Federation, now has 37 members, with 10 more on a waiting list. The club needs more volunteers to supervise the Thursday afternoon games.

Jackson was not surprised by the club’s popularity, despite the cultural dominance of video games and television.

“They still strive for interaction with other kids,” said Jackson, who hopes to take a group of students to an upcoming scholastic chess competition in Portland.

Esquire Hills principal Sandra Horst said chess is unique because it levels the playing field.

“Size and age don’t matter here,” Horst said. “It breaks down the barriers. You look in their eyes and you see the sparks flying.”

Students start play with 900 points, and are awarded or docked points depending upon their performance in games. The student with the greatest number of points is ranked No. 1. Scores are published on a Web site created by Jackson, and can be accessed by club members.

Most of the players are boys, but sixth-grader Anastasia Alder is ranked second. She was inspired when she saw on television that a 13-year-old girl competed in the recent national chess tournament in Seattle, and that women are competing in the general competition for the first time.

“It helps you plan what’s going to happen next, and you can make money at it, too,” said Alder, referring to the purses offered at the national competition.

Jackson has been approached by parents who would like their first- and second-grade children involved in the club. She would like to oblige, she said, but she is already short of volunteers for the group she has.

She would also like to help other elementary schools start chess clubs, she said, and to organize interscholastic tournaments.

“The kid are itching to compete,” Jackson said.

For more information about starting a chess club at your school, call Jackson at 692-2881 or e-mail ehchessclub@attbi.com.

How to help

Volunteers are needed to supervise the chess club, which meets from 1-2:30 p.m. Thursdays at Esquire Hills Elementary School. The school also would appreciate donations of chess sets, or even odd chess pieces for the club. For more information about volunteering, call Gail Meyer at 692-3117.

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