Each year, the National Elementary Scholastic Chess tournament attracts students from across the nation–this year, to Nashville, Tennessee. The young chess players dream of becoming grandmasters, winning trophies, and earning some of the 20,000 dollars in scholarship money that’s on the table. This year, PS 335, an elementary school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, has qualified for the national championships for the first time. Jackie Mader visits the chess team as they prepare for their debut.
SOUND: (Sounds of setting up the board).
TYRIQ: White is right here. This is the king that you have to protect, which is the most important piece.
JORDAN: These are knights
The 11 year olds play on the same team, but on this Monday afternoon, Jordan is thinking about how he will defeat his teammate.
JORDAN: I moved my pawn right here so I could attack his knight because the knight is more important than the pawn. (7)
Tyriq has his own strategy.
TYRIQ: I moved right here so I could protect my knight and attack these two and have more attackers than defenders. (9)
In a few swift moves, Tyriq captures three of Jordan’s pawns, and a rook. Jordan comes back with a surprise attack.
JORDAN: Check! (2)
Tyriq carefully examines board.
MADER: What are you thinking right now?
TYRIQ: to protect my king (6)
A few moves later, Tyriq corners Jordan’s king: It’s checkmate. The two boys shake hands and reset their board. Tyriq says he likes the competition.
TYRIQ: My rival is Jordan because he makes me play hard and he helps me get better and every time I play him, we have a fun game. (12)
Two other members of the team are hunched over their chessboards a few feet away.
Sounds: Pieces clinking together on the chessboard. “I’m going to get you in check!”(6)
The team of four has less than 20 days before heading to Nashville.
MADER: What’s the farthest away you’ve traveled?
TYRIQ: The farthest we ever traveled was Chinatown…We went to central park for a tournament before. No, but Chinatown was farther. (13)
These kids are part of a program called Chess in the Schools. The program aims to empower kids in 51 low income schools across the city. P.S. 335 is one of Crown Heights poorest schools. It has a 95 percent poverty rate. To these boys, Tennessee is a world away.
TYRIQ: we’ll be staying in a hotel..with a pool. I hope we have a Jacuzzi in our room, me and angel. I think there’s be a place where we can play table tennis. I hope there’s laser tag and video games in our room. (16)
Jordan has never been on an airplane before.
JORDAN: People have said that when you’re on an airplane, and you look down, people look like ants, and I want to look down to see. (10)
Meghan Dunn is a teacher at 335 and the faculty adviser for the team. She raised the 3000 dollars needed for the trip by sending out donor letters and creating a website. She says the boys have bonded over chess.
DUNN: A lot of the kids around here don’t really have the chance to play on sports teams or be a part of a team. So this is a great opportunity for them to be on a team, and work together. (9)
Dunn says the boys have made more friends and are also more motivated in school. Tyriq’s parents, Leah and Thomas Holland, are happy that their son found an activity he likes. Before the chess team, they tried to put Tyriq in Football, but he didn’t like running.
TIMOTHY: Then when he started doing chess, we were like ‘yeah ok, do your best.’ Then he started crying when he was losing, its like. ‘I hope he don’t, I really thought he might quit’ but he stuck to it (12)
Leah Holland says being part of a team has brought Tyriq out of his shell and made him more outgoing. She also said he has learned patience.
LEAH: He knows how to keep his cool a little more. As far as the competition and learning how to compete and be let down, he knows he can’t win every game. But to learn from losing, actually. (11)
A two year study of elementary chess players in the city found that reading levels improve more for chess players than for kids who don’t play chess. A Texas study even found that the game improves standardized test scores. Meghan Dunn says that the benefits go beyond academics.
DUNN: we also want them to walk away with the skill of knowing that I can set a goal and I can reach that goal. Because at the end of the day, that skill is going to be worth more to them in life than just what their score is on a test. (10)
The team will face heavy competition in Nashville. There will be 2100 players competing. Many of their opponents take private lessons or have a coach at their school four times a week. But the boys say they’re ready for the challenge, and have set their sights on winning.
JORDAN: I think we’re gonna do good and have a fun time and we’re gonna win a lot as a team and get as most points as possible. (8)
Jackie Mader, Columbia Radio News.