NASHVILLE -- The performance of our soldiers in Iraq reassured those worried about the next generation of Americans, and so should the good news that emanated earlier this month from two giant ballrooms in the Opryland Hotel.
On the concrete floors of those ballrooms stood row upon row of trestle tables and folding chairs. On the tables sat 1,200 vinyl roll-up chessboards each holding 32 chess pieces, with a chess clock next to each board. Here, in an environment known for country music celebration and not cerebral pursuits, sat the 2,400 combatants in the National Elementary K-6 Chess Championship.
This was not a competition for the faint of heart: two games on Friday at 1:00 and 7:00, three on Saturday at 9:00, 2:00 and 7:00, and two on Sunday at 9:00 and 2:00, followed by an awards ceremony Sunday evening at the Grand Ole Opry, for which kids put on country and Western garb. (Their chess-playing uniforms were t-shirts with slogans like "Kick Some Brain" or "Play chess, Maryland style," which featured a drawing of crabs holding chess pieces in their pincers.)
On Friday afternoon, Robert Singletary from Raleigh, N.C., chief director of the tournament, opened the competition by stating: "The round is officially begun. Start your clocks." Then came silence, except for the hum of the giant air conditioners and the sound of small palms hitting the buttons on chess clocks. (In these competitions, players have 60 minutes to make their first 25 moves.) Players aren't allowed to speak to each other during games, so trash-talking is out.
Parents are also out: They wait in adjoining rooms for the two hours or so that games typically take, hoping their kids will burst in with expressions of joy rather than dejection. Even so, veteran tournament director Harry Sabine has seen parents getting into fights with other parents, "accusing them of giving advice when the kids go to the bathroom." Singletary, while emphasizing that "98 percent of the parents are great," recalled one mom who made her son sleep in the bathtub when he lost.
The kids, though, didn't seem so stressed. Some tossed around a football or played video games. Others between official matches played chess games in the hotel corridors, lying on their stomachs and resting on their elbows bedside their vinyl boards. The children I spoke with seemed semi-nerdy but also all-boy (girls are a distinct minority), delighting in smashing their opponents.
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