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Sanders Memorial Elementary finds winning strategy with chess club


They pour into the art room after school each Tuesday and Thursday to play the game of kings and queens, knights, pawns and bishops. One after another, kids of all ages line up at the rows of desks to lay out their black and white pieces on checkered boards, readying themselves for battle. Their coach, a gregarious fellow named Roy Washington, 62, weaves his way through them, stopping here and there to examine their moves and give general and often one-on-one advice.

"Don't forget, once you touch your piece you have to move it," he announces to the Tuesday afternoon advanced club after showing them a new strategy: a two-move checkmate.

"That was a gift," he advises Chandler Tucker, 8, while watching a match that had Chandler's opponent, Evan St. Romain, 7, moving his white queen into a precarious position.

Chess is said to be the oldest game of skill, and judging by the number of kids who have signed up for the after-school club at Sanders Memorial Elementary, it still holds up quite well.

Now in its fourth year, the club boasts 134 active members and has a waiting list of 45.

Not bad. Especially when you consider the doubters who predicted that a chess club would never fly when Washington first offered to start one.

Even Washington, who works as an instructional assistant with exceptional students at Sanders, never expected it to be this popular.

"I thought I might get maybe a dozen kids or so," he said. "The first year I had maybe 30 to 40. The second year 60. The third 90. And this year we had so many we had to make a waiting list."

So what's the allure?

"I like the moving — the strategy," said Drew Hodorski, 7, as he faced off in a game against Kayla Orteo, 8.

Then there are the players such as Drew's older brother Josh, 11, who just like to win.

"I like taking other pieces," he said, flashing an easy grin.

And for some, it's simply the enjoyment of the game.

"I just wanted to try something new," said Jordan DeStefano, 11, noting that he placed second in the last school tournament. "It gives you time to relax after school and just have fun."

Washington has his own thoughts.

First, there's the competitive factor.

"The kids learn here, then go play with a friend somewhere else and beat them in three or four moves. Then that kid wants to learn to play," Washington said. "Once they pass a certain threshold of experience, they can't play with many people except for the other kids in the club."

Then there's the cost.

"The reason why it's so popular is because it's free," he said. "With most other chess clubs there are fees and memberships."

Then there's the fact that the game is appealing to kids of all ages.

"I can have a fifth-grader sit down with a first-grader who wipes them off the board," he said, chuckling. "I have kids in second grade that, after the first move, can tell you how many moves the game is going to last. Their parents don't even want to play with them.

"I start them out in kindergarten," Washington said. "I teach them the board, and then every week they learn one new piece. After 10 weeks they can play chess, and then from there on they learn strategy."

Washington was about 5 or 6 years old and living in New York when his dad started teaching him how to play the game. "There wasn't a whole lot of activity in the chess world then," Washington said. "It really took off after Bobby Fischer won the World Chess Championship. By then I was a high-schooler and mostly into athletics."

Washington went on to become known as the "Father of tae kwon do" in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In 1988 he coached the Virgin Islands Olympic tae kwon do team in Seoul and also coached teams to five Pan American championships and four world tae kwon do championships.

Upon retiring and moving to West Palm Beach, Washington's interest in chess was reignited when his daughter asked him to help out with her school's chess team.

"We took that team to the state championships," he said.

After his daughter was grown and enlisted in the military, Washington moved to Florida's west coast, took the job at Sanders and made an offer his principal could not refuse: to start an after-school chess club.

"We jumped behind him with both feet," said principal Jill Middleton. "He does this all on his own time. He gets no funding, no extra pay for this. He's an amazing guy — he goes above and beyond. And he enjoys it."

Another added benefit, said Middleton, is the fact that the chess club's popularity has spurred others to start after-school Scrabble and technology clubs.

Washington has gotten some support and funding from the PTA and the school's Dads Club. That pays for chess boards, game pieces and trophies for in-house tournaments and those held at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Center.

"We've done very well," Washington said of the tournaments played against clubs from Oakstead, Pine View and Seven Oaks elementary schools. "In the three divisions we compete in, we always come in first or second. They see us coming and say, 'Oh no, Sanders is here.' "

But competition isn't the be-all, end-all. Washington notes that regardless of whether kids win, chess becomes a great educational enhancement.

"It helps develop math skills, strategies, thinking ability and problem-solving skills," he said.

"It's an amazing thing," Middleton said. "I really think that the students have learned a skill that will show up in other parts of their life. I think that's the best thing they have gotten from this — that strategy, that logical thinking."

Washington, too, says he gets something great out of it.

"Chess has always been my love, my hobby," he said. "And turning the kids on to it, well that's just the best thing."

Sanders Memorial Elementary finds winning strategy with chess club 01/20/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 20, 2009 10:20pm]
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