Students ponder their moves at Scotlandville chess tourney

As she huddled over the chess board, Hannah Catherine placed her hand on her king, pondering her next move. Her opponent calmly sat across the table, knowing his queen was within striking distance.

In swift moves, Isaiah Greenlee, a 7-year-old home-schooled student, trapped Catherine’s king along the side of the board with two rooks and a pawn, ending the match.

He and Catherine, a 10-year-old Belfair Elementary student, rose shook hands and headed for the gym’s lobby, where family, friends and teachers greeted students as they finished their first of five matches in Saturday’s ChessMates Classic at Scotlandville Middle Pre-Engineering Magnet Academy.

The tournament, in its first year, is the product of a collaborative effort by the Foundation for East Baton Rouge School System, the Louisiana Scholastic Chess Association and Cajun Chess, with volunteers from City Year also helping out.

Current State Champion and National Master James Rousselle made a special appearance before the final round, speaking briefly to the students and handing out awards.

Cajun Chess officials said 127 students from 20 schools in kindergarten through the 12th grade registered for the competition.

Foundation member and Vice President Ted Firnberg said the students included out-of-town visitors from as far away as Houston. Eight local schools, five elementary and three middle schools, preregistered, Firnberg said.

Some students who arrived early played practice matches while others talked with teammates, coaches and parents. But once the tournament kicked off, they were all business.

Some of the younger children playing against less experienced opponents would make their move, watch their opponent make a move, then erase the last move and show their opponent the move he or she should have made.

Firnberg said chess is one of two areas, robotics being the other, that foundation members prioritized in an effort to promote artistic and intellectual growth in students.

“For us, it was a relatively obvious starting point,” Firnberg said. “Participation in chess in the early grades has shown to improve student achievement.”

The idea for chess in Baton Rouge schools came from foundation President Kathryn Kissam, who moved about six years ago from Richmond, Va., which had a scholastic chess league, to Baton Rouge, which did not.

Kissam heard complaints about the lack of chess in schools in Baton Rouge, so she wrote to the U.S. Chess Federation about starting a league in Baton Rouge.

The Chess Federation responded with a $10,000 grant, which Kissam said was matched by a $10,000 grant from ExxonMobil.

The money was used to start gathering materials and educate teachers in summer learning sessions titled “Chess, Common Core and Critical Thinking.”

Ryan Bravato, a social studies teacher at Scotlandville Middle who was among educators attending the sessions, said he had no prior chess experience but fell in love with the game immediately.

He passed that love of the game onto the dozen students in a chess class launched at the beginning of the school year. He said about 20 other students drop in to play after school as well.

Bravato said at first, he had to show students what the pieces were, how they lined up on the board and how they moved because none had been exposed to chess before.

It was a slow process at first, but he said now, he’ll put a string of moves on the board at the beginning of class, moves he found in a textbook or something former U.S. chess prodigy, grandmaster and world champion Bobby Fischer used in one of his matches, and challenge the students to learn it and use it in a match.

Ronald Dunn, 13, an eighth-grader at Scotlandville Middle and one of Bravato’s students, said he likes chess because “it’s a good way to stimulate your mind and make yourself smarter.”

He’s even beaten Bravato in a few matches, he said with a wry smile.

Bravato said he’s seen incredible growth by in Dunn and other students since the beginning of the class.

“At first, they wanted to make every move immediately without understanding the consequences,” he said. “Now many of them are thinking usually four to five moves ahead.”