LAND O'LAKES — Lisa Levison never figured her son Joshua for a chess master.
She signed him up for chess camp two summers ago because it was the only camp she could find in the area that didn't involve running and sports. Joshua suffered a hip ailment that put him in a wheelchair at the time.
"I thought he would be begging me to come home," Levison recalled. "I couldn't tear him away."
Joshua loved the game so much, in fact, that his mom helped organized a chess club, complete with professional coaches from Chess Nuts in Tampa, for Pine View Elementary. In just its second year, the club is rated second in the state at the K-3 level, with nationally ranked Joshua the group's acknowledged man to beat.
Five members of the club — second-graders Joshua, Mallory Payne, Jordan Payne and Hailey Nguyen, and third grader Hannah Morales — also are headed to the 2009 SuperNationals in Tennessee. The event, which takes place once every four years, is considered the Olympics of student chess.
Joshua, who likens chess to war on a board, can't wait.
"I practice all the time," he said. "I'm ready."
On Thursday afternoon, the 45 chess club members gathered in their school media center for 90 minutes of pizza and practice.
Many of the kids fell into the game just as Joshua did.
"I asked (a friend named) Ethan how to play chess. Then I taught Mallory," Jordan Payne said of her decision to join the club in September. "We said, 'Mom and Dad, we don't want to play softball anymore. We want to play chess.' "
Joshua squared off against coach Eleazar Poblete, who challenged the boy's every move.
"Why didn't you capture the pawn?" Poblete asked. "Did you consider capturing the pawn? Are you sure that's a good move?"
Joshua's eyes rapidly scanned the board, his lips pursed, his finger drumming against his temple. He tried to take in all the lessons as the coach prompted him to think strategically about each move.
Coach Jeff York added to the message with his instructions to the group.
"Think about what the other side is guarding," York said as the kids made their first few moves. "Already, your game is starting to unfold."
Mallory tried a few of her trick moves, with names like Matrix and Four Moves Mate, against fifth-grader Brandon Jaszcar, who parried each effort.
"I think we're playing the Quiet Game," Mallory said. She watched Brandon take her queen. "I might have something up my sleeve," she said with a sly grin, rook in hand. "Who knows?"
First-grader Justin Jaszcar relished his chance to compete against Hailey and Joshua, neither of whom he figured he could beat.
"When they win, I see what moves they do and I can do it back on them. Then I can win," said Justin, who likes the promise of ribbons and trophies that come with victory. "I like to play them so I can beat them back."
The thrill of competition, in fact, drives many of the kids in this game of skill. Ask if it's boring and be prepared to get some dirty looks.
Ask what's exciting about it and hear about how kids like to flex their brains to set themselves up for a win.
"It helps you educate your brain, make the right moves and learn from your mistakes," Jordan said.
"It's critical thinking," Hailey added, "and it's fun."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.