All the right moves

Posted: May 22, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

The number of entries in the national championships increases by 100 or more each year. (Singletary recalls the 1985 championship in Charlotte, where he was delighted that the number of entrants for the first time topped the 500 mark -- by one.) The number of participants from poor communities is also growing: Just as major league baseball was refreshed by the introduction of black and Hispanic players a generation ago, so schoolboy chess has been helped by the realization of some inner-city leaders that chess is a great way to build minds and refine aggression.

The team winner in this month's championships was Oakhaven

Elementary in Memphis, a school at which 95 percent of the students are poor enough to be eligible for government-subsidized lunches. Jeff Bulington, the team's chess coach and school math teacher, told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, "This is like finding out that a skiing team from Bolivia just won the Olympic gold medal." Principal Melanie Suriani added, "They beat some of the wealthiest children in the nation," and in doing so squashed "a typical stereotype" regarding what poor kids can do.

The Oakhaven chess team basked in cheers at a school rally where classmates held signs such as "Oakhaven Rocks!" As does America. As awful as many movies and music CDs are, as troubled as many American families and schools are, some must be doing things right to produce disciplined soldiers and chess players ready to fight.