Kids check out chess

Sherry Boas Sentinel correspondent
Posted February 5, 2001

It is said that chess is the thinking-man's game.

In Lake County, you might say it's the thinking-child's game.

Chess clubs, once thought of as gathering places for bookworms and nerds, have become a popular pastime for all types of children at several Lake elementary schools.

Four public schools -- Rimes, Skeen, Groveland and Umatilla elementary schools -- currently have or recently completed after-school chess clubs.

And the chess club at one private elementary school, Mount Dora's Montessori Nest & Children's House, has been active for the past 13 months.

Fourth-grade teacher Tess Osteen leads the recently formed Groveland Elementary School chess club, which has approximately 35 members from grades three to five.

"Our club meets once a week for almost two hours," she said. "The club was created for the academic and social enhancement of the students.

"About half of the students had never played chess before starting the club. Out of the rest, half have played seriously, and the other half have played minimally."

The mixture of novices and more-experienced chess players seems to be the norm. Some schools deal with the differing skill levels by separating the children into two sections, so the more accomplished students can play against those with similar skills.

Itzia Avalos, a third-grader at Groveland Elementary, said she loves the chess club.

"It's great," she said. "You get to know how to play chess and you play against other kids. You sit down across from each other, play chess and make a new friend.

"I've made lots of new friends at the chess club and I've learned a lot too," Itzia said.

Ian Zominhan, another Groveland third-grader, said, "I played chess a couple times before I joined the club, but I wasn't very good. Now I win every time.

"I like playing, plus we get to have snacks," Ian said.

Gary McKenny, a guidance councilor and the chess teacher at Skeen Elementary in Leesburg, divided his group of first- through fifth-graders into a beginners and advanced groups.

"We met for an hour once a week from October through December as part of the after-school program," said McKenny. "By the time November rolled around, some of the kids were ready to try being in a tournament, so we got together with a group of kids from the chess club at Rimes Elementary and had two competitions.

"It was a lot of fun and the kids enjoyed not only playing together but meeting other kids who are interested in playing chess."

At Rimes Elementary, speech and language pathologist Korena Monosky has been leading her school's chess team since it began in 1998.

Monosky began playing chess when she was just 3 years old.

"My dad wanted a chess opponent, so he taught me how to play chess, and I've been playing and enjoying the game ever since," she said.

Her group of 40 students in grades three, four and five spend the last 30 minutes of each Friday playing chess. They hold matches and tournaments, and award trophies to the best players.

"We practice all year long for a tournament that begins in April," Monosky said. "Students compete with one another in the same grades. In the past years, champions have had to win as many as five games in a row to take home a trophy."

At Umatilla Elementary, Jim Mayer's chess club is made up of interested fourth-grade students, the grade level that Mayer teaches.

Five girls match wits with about a dozen boys who are also in the club. The Umatilla group, which is in its second year, is the only area club to meet several times a week.

At 8 a.m. every weekday morning -- except Wednesday -- the children set up their boards and chess pieces and try to be the first to say, "Checkmate."

Academic research has shown that children who play chess score better on standardized tests and that their logical reasoning skills improve with their game playing. Chess also helps children learn how to cooperateand improves their sense of sportsmanship, according to chess club organizers.

At Groveland Elementary, all children who wish to participate in the chess club must sign a "contract" together with their parents stating that they know the rules of the club and understand the consequences of not following those rules.

They agree to treat each other with kindness, shake hands before and after games, not talk while playing and follow the official U.S. Chess Center Rules of Etiquette.

Frank Gerry, a teacher's aide at the Montessori Nest school, works with a group of about a dozen children between the ages of 4 and 10. Gerry is a passionate chess player who, for the past four years, has been a member of the Dickens-Reed Bookstore Chess Club in Mount Dora.

He loves to share his excitement for the world of chess by teaching his young charges how to play the age-old game of strategy.

One of his Gerry's former students, Laney Jones, entered her first U.S. Chess Federation tournament last year and placed among the top players in the event. Jones, who is now a fourth-grader, recently returned to the Montessori Nest school at Gerry's invitation, to play a simultaneous match against all 12 members of the chess club.

The outcome of that test of her concentration was a complete victory against all her opponents.