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Interest unchecked at Ridgecrest

At Ridgecrest Elementary School, nearly 20 percent of the student body belongs to the chess club, and players are learning more than just moves and strategy.

Ridgecrest has Pinellas County's only full-time gifted program. When the chess club first started, it drew mostly gifted students, who constitute about half the student body.

But as it grew, the club began attracting students from all classes. It now has drawn 141 of the school's 770 students and expanded into two groups: first- and second-graders in one; third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in the other.

As a result, students who might never have met are now getting to know each other.

"I'm so pleased with the number of general education students in the chess club," principal Donna Benkert said.

When Jean Patterson, Ridgecrest's former community involvement assistant, organized the club five years ago, one of the goals was to get all the children involved, not just students in the magnet program.

"Research has shown there is a direct correlation between understanding how to play chess and reading comprehension," Benkert said. "All students benefit from that."

Stephanie O'Mara, the current community involvement assistant, oversees the club with the help of parent volunteers.

"The kids are really awesome. They are very active with chess," O'Mara said. "I am just one of several volunteers who provide the support needed to let the kids play."

The club has over 50 chess sets, with large vinyl boards the children spread out on the floor on the multipurpose room two times a month.

"I don't need to give a lot of instruction," said O'Mara, "but we do study techniques and how to do correct chess notation."

Recently a chess master from the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa was a guest speaker. He discussed different moves and strategies and talked about motivation.

"He expressed how impressed he was with our kids," Benkert said.

Last Thursday kicked off a six-week competition within the club, with players divided into advanced and intermediate groups.

"My strategy is offense," said 9-year-old Melissa Scharf.

While her father taught her how to play, she has improved her skills at the club.

"The thing I like most about chess is that it's challenging," she said.

Diana Lewellen, a parent volunteer for the last five years, watched quietly as her 11-year-old twins, Chase and Claire, began their matches. They have been club members since first grade.

"Neither one knew how to play, but they both wanted to sign up," Lewellen said. "They really learned on their own and with the help of the older kids in the club. They are like sponges, absorbing everything."

Claire Lewellen said chess helps her solve problems.

"I try to learn from my mistakes," she said.

Claire and Chase play chess at home on the computer and against each other for practice.

"We play more seriously preparing for a tournament," she said.

Physical education coach Henry Gonzalez stops by to watch the competition in progress.

"I see the kids using their physical abilities in class," he said. "It's nice to see them in this context."

Gonzalez also has filled in as a playing partner on occasion.

"It's impressive to see this level of achievement, particularly with the first- and second-graders," he said.

In the past, Ridgecrest has sent a team to play at the St. Petersburg Chess Club, and the trophies lining the front office attest to their success.

The competition will end March 11, but the emphasis is not on one overall winner. All children who participate will receive a certificate.

"It's not always about win, win, win," said 9-year-old Bryan Atkinson. "I just like sitting down to a board and moving the pieces."

Carter Fish, 8, and Richard Willsey, 9, were opponents in Thursday's competition. Carter complimented Richard on his "double touch" move, which she thought helped him win the game.

Being in different grades, they did not know each other.

"That's something I like about the chess club," Fish said. "You get to play different people."

Aspiring chess master Austin Steullet, 9, eyes his opponent Thursday during a tournament. Steullet was among more than 50 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders competing in the tournament.

Melissa Scharf and Michael Dematteo square off in Thursday's tournament. The chess club has drawn 141 of Ridgecrest's 770 students, gifted and regular.