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Downtown chess tournament sharpens players' skills
Chris Beattie/Staff Photo - Ben Specher, right, waits for Hunter Legrange to make his move during the final stages of a chess tournament Wednesday night at the McKinney Performing Arts Center in downtown McKinney. The United States Chess Federation-rated competition featured players from several area school districts.
Rajpal Bal tilted back from the checkered board, gleaming with triumph. Three up, three down, and it was all him.
Chess doesn't shout popularity like football or cheerleading. It certainly doesn't harp on teamwork, and -- evidenced by the first "Chess on the Square" tournament in McKinney -- plenty of kids, like Rajpal, love that about it.
"I like that it's an individual game," Rajpal said. "You don't depend on anyone else to win."
Stay focused, think critically, and success follows -- seemingly not easy tasks for students as young as 5, but becoming a chess master is all the rage in the Dallas area.
The centuries-old game has in recent years permeated school districts in the DFW metroplex. After-school clubs have banded together in places like McKinney, and fostered a unified front to promote competitive play.
With many private coaches charging $100 by the hour, chess isn't for the weak-spirited, especially not at the youth level. Clubs, such as Rajpal's at Walker Elementary School, meet every week so members can hone their skills.
More than 1,200 players competed earlier this month at the National Scholastic K-12 Chess Championships in Dallas. Smaller-scale tournaments, like the one hosted Wednesday night at the McKinney Performing Arts Center (MPAC) downtown, provide area players with unfamiliar opponents -- their means for improvement.
"Chess on the Square" offers weekly classes for players of all skill levels, who put their teaching to the test at tournaments.
More than 50 students, in grades K-12, came to MPAC from neighboring cities to satisfy their constant appetite for competition. Students from McKinney, Allen, Plano, Lovejoy and Keller school districts played in the tournament.
Tricia Dobson, leader of Lovejoy ISD's well-known chess craze, brought eight of her players to Wednesday's event. Almost 150 students from the district's five schools are members of the Lovejoy Chess Club, which hosts its own regional tournaments every fall and winter.
Competitors in the United States Chess Federation (USCF)-rated MPAC tournament paid a $10 entrance fee -- money that Dobson said her club raises through school functions and chess boosters. Susan Berger, who started "Chess on the Square" with fellow McKinney ISD chess coach Rana Pawan, told Dobson about the competition.
Few area chess coaches or players turn down such an invite, Dobson said. Once they're in the chess world of who does what, it's hard to miss out.
"What you want is the higher-level thinking to really be pursued, so you give them competition," she said. "That's how they get better."
Divided into seven sections based on age and USCF rating, the players went at it -- time clocks, notebooks and all. Several stations included overhead cameras that broadcast video of the games to parents and friends watching in the next room.
Each player faced three opponents throughout the night, in an atmosphere unlike that of a typical classroom. Intense silence was interrupted only with "Checkmate."
Lovejoy High School junior Noah Wallaert was the minority in a field of elementary and middle school players. He played chess at the school library most mornings before joining the chess club this year.
"We're definitely the amateurs," said Noah, surrounded by kids half his age.
Section champs -- those who won all three rounds -- received trophies for their performance. Players from particular schools could win team trophies, depending on their combined scores.
Rajpal got his own trophy, a fitting prize for his solo success. But he has even higher hopes for chess in North Texas.
"I want it to grow," he said. "I want the whole nation to know about it."