TAMPA — School is over, the athletic fields dark. All that matters to the children squirming outside a strip mall storefront is getting to a white room lined with plastic tables.
And the chess boards ready for action.
Black and white pawns, rooks and queens hold court in silence until little fingers arrive to steer them to war. The battleground looks old fashioned, but to an increasing number of children in the Tampa Bay area, chess regularly trumps the thrills in video games.
"Bam! Bam!" cries Benson Walent, a finger migrating between the board and his nose as he captures a pawn, a rook, and a prized knight. Then the 6-year-old senses trouble.
"Don't take my biss-up!" he cries. "Don't you take my biss-up!"
No one is more surprised than the parents, waiting with magazines and laptops in a front room, to see their children mesmerized by an activity that starts and ends with a handshake.
In an age of digital distractions, where cell phones and Nintendo DS seem more childhood rights than privileges, the sport of chess somehow not only survives, it thrives.
The appeal goes beyond shiny trophies. In chess, size doesn't matter. Winning requires brains, not brawn. It's a lot trickier than PlayStation. And when else does a kid actually have a fair chance to beat Mom and Dad?
"In video games, you can't lose. You have a thousand lives," said Willard Taylor, the coach behind Chessnuts, which organizes chess activities for kids and adults along Florida's west coast. "In chess, there's a strategy. There's going to be a winner. There's going to be a loser."
• • •
On a recent Sunday, about 200 chess enthusiasts between the ages of 4 and 14 descended on Carrollwood Day School. They carried roll-up boards and black and white figurines in custom, elongated backpacks.
Schools from around Tampa Bay were announced by little yellow signs showing students where to sit. The tournament brought together children from a wide range — South Tampa's Gorrie Elementary, Berkeley Preparatory, a northwest Hillsborough private school, Pine View Elementary in Land O'Lakes.
Many came from homes where parents can afford after-school lessons and private tutors. But chess has never belonged to the country club elite. The children of migrant farm workers at Wimauma Elementary are highly competitive in tournaments. Local coaches are trying to start a program to serve Tampa's inner-city youth.
"It's not about size. It's not about gender. It's not about ethnicity. It doesn't matter if you came from an elite school or a Title I program," said Jerry Nash, scholastic director for the United States Chess Federation. "In what other arena sport can a second-grader sit down across form an eighth-grader and just simply wipe them off the board?"
He sees chess enjoying a resurgence in a nation that has never had much patience for the sport. Unlike the Bobby Fischer heyday of the 1970s, education and children are driving the growing interest today.
Some of it comes from parents embracing chess as a way to hone academic skills, and give students an edge in college admissions.
Teachers, too, are warming up to a game that centers on math and critical thinking skills. In navigating a chess board, students absorb the fine points of graphing and grid systems.
But it doesn't feel like homework, or a forced parental activity.
Ask Gentry Burks, whose father requires him to do something constructive, like reading a book or chess, for the time spent playing video games.
"TV and DS aren't better than chess," Gentry says. His father's eyes open wide as the 8-year-old dismisses channel surfing and his Lego Batman Nintendo DS game as boring.
That's not to say that a board game doesn't have limits.
"Football is kind of better," Gentry admitted.
• • •
Wearing a pink shirt and glittery berets in strawberry blond hair, Hannah Morales looks more American Girl doll than fierce competitor. But in chess, the 8-year-old can walk the line.
Hannah, playing white, barely whispered during the Carrollwood tournament. Her pencil scratched audibly after each move, as she meticulously recorded each step for later review.
Hannah's focus stayed intense in her second tournament in as many days. She begged to compete on Saturday and Sunday, says her mother, Joan, shaking her head with a laugh.
Joan marvels at her daughter's fascination since spotting chess trophies on display at Pine View Elementary. Hannah joined the school team in September. Soon she got involved with Chessnuts, picking up strategy and extra play time on Thursday nights.
"Hannah will tell everybody, 'I checkmated my mom last night," Joan Morales says.
Now Hannah plays every chance available, scarfing down Chick-fil-A while waiting for the coaches to arrive for Chessnuts practice. She giggles her way through that evening's matches.
"Hannah, banana, co-cana," she sings absently, a commentary on how badly she is losing.
"Stop, you're not Hannah Montana," another child replies. "Keep it in your brain."
Hannah keeps singing, until a coach helps her figure a way out of checkmate.
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.