The lobby of the Tampa Airport Westshore Hilton bustled with activity.
Children of all ages hustled in and out of rooms, parents in tow. Ted McNair, a Middleton High School graduate, 21-year Air Force veteran and sixth degree black belt in tang soo do, could have been there to give a board-breaking demonstration.
Instead, he guided a group of students through a discipline that requires equal amounts of concentration and focus: chess.
McNair's Chess Nut Society Club and Academy Prep teams competed in the North Florida Regional Scholastic Chess Championships Feb. 7-9.
A melting pot of minds supplanted the business meetings and slide show presentations usually found in the ballrooms. Over the three days, more than 100 kids from 8 to 18 faced off with each participant enduring five matches.
McNair's pupils were the latest to rise from a grass roots effort he started in 1988 when he began teaching classes at the John F. Germany Library in downtown Tampa. From there, he moved to the Brandon Regional Library, the 78th Street Community Library.
Now McNair's "Chess Nuts" meet at the Riverview Branch Library. There he takes in students anywhere from 5 to adults and teaches them the finer points of chess.
The ones who excel end up in competition alongside one of McNair's other growing fields, Academy Prep Tampa, where he also teaches middle school students who come from the inner-city seeking a better education.
"When I was hired at Academy Prep, there were only two teachers and just two buildings, one for the girls and one for the boys," McNair said. "I thought it was important to take chess to a place like Academy Prep."
McNair, the first teacher hired at Academy Prep, taught everything at first, including karate, but he already had eased into semiretirement.
"Pretty soon, all I wanted to do was teach chess," McNair said.
That's when the teams really took off. McNair began to expand the chess classes at Academy Prep, all while sowing seeds at the libraries with the CNS Club.
The Academy Prep team became a force to be reckoned with very quickly.
"I saw the need and I wanted to be a positive difference in the community," McNair said. "These kids need some constructive, wholesome things to do and it (chess) helps with their academics, even in their social lives."
McNair's martial arts background is a platform for teaching principles of chess.
"Both require in-depth concentration and focus," McNair said. "Both require discipline and teach respect of your opponent's skill," McNair said. "Also there's the allure of the competition arena."
On Feb. 9, McNair and his disciples finished their last rounds of competition. The Academy Prep team competed in the divisional play and students from Academy Prep and the Chess Nuts also competed as individuals.
Within minutes, the ballrooms filled with steely silence as officials shuffled out all parents and nonessential personnel.
More than 20 minutes later, competitors filed out wearing a mix of frowns, smiles and slumping shoulders.
Each Academy Prep and CNS Club competitor, win or lose, comes right back into the room and goes over their notations.
Their obsession with chess chases at the heels even of McNair's.
"I went to my first local competition, I think I went 2-2 and didn't get a trophy but that was the beginning," said 14-year-old Julian Perez, an Academy Prep team member.
"From there, I only wanted to get better, continue with my passion. I will study my notations like a sports player would study game film."
The "notations" are notes from the match taken in a small book.
In fact, every move in every game at competition is taken down in the notations. The players study them after a match like NFL quarterbacks look at photographs of defensive formations when they come to the sideline.
The comparisons of chess to football run deep and none of it is lost, not even on some of the youngest in the group. They are able to express the comparisons with remarkable clarity.
"When playing chess, when you're trying to capture pieces, it's like playing defense, just like in football when you tackle someone and stop them from scoring, you're playing defense," said Anthony Simon, 8. "When you are trying to get your pawn to the other end of the board, to get a new piece, that's playing offense, just like when you score a touchdown (in football)."
Anthony Simon, who competes as an individual with the CNS Club, knows chess lessons are taken right from the board and onto the football field as Anthony also plays for the TBYFL Panthers. However, the crossover from chess lessons to life lessons is the real beauty of it.
"When I play chess, it makes me think about life decisions and how they relate to the chess board," said Tony Simon, Anthony's 14-year-old brother.
"When you make a (life) decision, it's like a move on a chess board. A bad move is like a bad decision (in life) and there are consequences to making that bad move and they can affect the rest of the moves you make in the game."
Chess also offers opportunities to just get out of the house and enjoy a little travel.
"It's nice to go to different places out of town, gives us a chance to breathe, get out in different environments and see things," Tony Simon said. "Then competing against people from different states, it's cool just to experience that."
Several Academy Prep kids and Chess Nuts will do just that next month at the state tournament in Orlando.
The Academy Prep team competing in the K8 division claimed one of the five qualifying spots with Perez placing third.
Tony Simon, competing against many high school seniors, placed fourth as an individual for the Chess Nuts. The top 10 individuals advance.
And Tony's brother Anthony, competing in the K3 division, received a special letter of invitation to the state tournament. Anthony forced a draw against the No. 1 competitor in the K3 division, who beat every other player he faced.
It will be Anthony's third trip to the state tournament in just his third year playing chess.
Andy Warrener can be reached at [email protected]