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Chess becoming cool in elementary school

INDEPENDENCE -- Fifth-grader Alex Nyseth favors being methodical when he plays chess, and tries to capture all of his opponents pieces before he makes a play on the king.

February 15, 2011

INDEPENDENCE -- Fifth-grader Alex Nyseth favors being methodical when he plays chess, and tries to capture all of his opponents pieces before he makes a play on the king.

Humberto Betancourt, Nyseth's frequent chess sparring partner at Henry Hill Elementary School, takes a different approach.

"When they move their pawns, I attack them and we trade queens," he said during a recent game between the two. "When I get the queen, I feel like I have more power."

Inside the library at Henry Hill on this day, almost 50 more Garry Kasparovs-in-training -- boys and girls -- are doing the same thing, talking strategy and trying to best one another.

"Chess is cool," said Javier Puente, a fourth-grader. "You need to be smart."

All three boys are involved in the Chess for Success program, an activity offered at most elementary schools in Monmouth and Independence.

And Henry Hill, it appears, is developing something of a pedigree. It sent players to a state competition in 2010. Last month, its team won first place at a regional contest in Sheridan featuring nine other schools from Polk and Yamhill counties.

And four students, Betancourt, Nyseth, Puente and fifth-grader Roman Gabriel, will travel to the Chess for Success State Championship Tournament in Portland March 4-5.

"We're very proud of them," said Nancy Albritton, Henry Hill's librarian and chess coach. "They've done an amazing job and represent our school well."

Central's primary schools began offering chess clubs in 2004. Funding comes from the Portland-based Chess for Success organization, which distributes funds to schools with high percentages of low-income families to buy chess instruction and curriculum.

Henry Hill has traditionally had the greatest turnout for the club in the district, with almost twice as many students as its peer schools. Albritton isn't sure why.

"I think it's just that it's a social game and something fun to do after school," she said.

There's enough girls playing chess at Henry Hill that the school will send some to an all-girls tournament, Albritton said. And the ethnic make-up of the club reflects the school's enrollment, with almost half of the participants speaking Spanish as a first language.

"It's a global game," Albritton said, noting upperclassmen will be tutoring kindergarten through second-grade students in chess starting in April.

Shannon Gabriel, a Henry Hill teacher and Roman's mother, said her children fell in love with chess when they joined the club three years ago. Roman has actually taken to writing down notations of moves made during his matches, Gabriel said.

"That's like the beginning of algebra," she said. "It's so good for them academically."

Roman Gabriel went to state in 2010 and placed fifth in his division. He said he's excited about returning, but kind of nervous.

"It's pretty competitive," he said. "They come there to play."

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