‘Mental athletes’ compete at chess boards

Discover how a unique after-school program helps ‘level the playing field’ for kids from under-served communities …

Before the round starts at the Chess for Success Regional Tournament, Sally Zhu confers with her Harrison Park School mentor, Ralph Leftwich.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

Local nonprofit Chess for Success held its “Athletics for the Mind” regional competition for middle school students at four locations in the greater Portland area on February 7, including inner East Portland’s Harrison Park School.

Seated at rows of tables in the cafeteria, dozens of normally-energetic, chatty, and wiggly kids sat still and silent. Each player studied the pieces on the chess board, made his or her move, and recorded the play on a notepad.

Lined up at tables, these seventh- and eighth-graders begin their next game.

Some say Executive Director Julie Young is Oregon’s “Queen of Chess”, as she continues to lead the Chess for Success afterschool program.

For 23 years, Chess for Success has started chess clubs and funded staff for them in underperforming schools throughout Oregon, said Executive Director Julie Young, who was helping out at this tournament.

“In our pilot program, Portland Public Schools saw that, no matter where kids were in their educational standing – including having learning and attention deficits – when they joined a chess club, their behavior, grades, and social skills measurably improved,” Young told East Portland News. “It’s continued, because it’s clear that we provide a successful and very cost-effective afterschool program.”

But, all young chess players in the region – 7th and 8th graders at this tournament – are invited and welcomed to the regional competitions. “We have about 100 players here today; some of them are home-schooled, and others come from public and private school chess clubs,” Young pointed out.

During regional tournaments, students can compete both in teams and as individuals, commented Young. “Tournaments consist of five rounds of chess. Students with top scores at the regional tournaments qualify to compete in the Chess for Success State Championships, which are held at the Oregon Convention Center on March 13th -14th.”

Tournament Master Clay Kelleher makes announcements before another round of play begins.

Students from outer East Portland school chess clubs were plentiful at this tournament.

“Clark Dunford, from Floyd Light Middle School, tied for first place in the 7th grade, so he will advance to the State championship,” Young revealed. “In an earlier tournament, Alexander Dube from Parkrose Middle School tied for third place, and will also advance to the State Tournament.”

Yet another game of chess begins at this Chess for Success tournament.

One round of play ended, and different student chess players were called up to the tables. Tournament Master Clay Kelleher made sure all of the youngsters were in place, before he called for the next round of play to begin.

“I love hearing how the lives of young people have been changed for the better by their learning to play chess,” Young quietly commented to us just outside the hall. “Over the years, I’ve had many teachers tell me they are amazed to see some of the students sitting still and concentrating – something they’ve never seen in their own classrooms.

“It’s more than a game,” added Young. “It’s training for a better life.”

Learn more about Chess for Success, volunteer, or consider contributing to this 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, by visiting their website: CLICK HERE.

> On our Front Page: Sellwood Middle School Chess Club player Lucas Petersen ponders his next move.

© 2015 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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