DECATUR — Playing in your first chess tournament can be nerve-wracking.
“I was so proud of Raezhane,” said Joshua Fazekas, South Shores School's social worker and coach of the chess team, speaking of fourth-grader Raezhane Jones. “The game went an hour and a half, and she didn't lose until the last few moves.”
Until those last few moves at the Nov. 11 tournament in Peoria, the outcome could have gone the other way, he said.
The South Shores Superstars Chess Club began last March as a good-behavior incentive, Fazekas said, but more students have wanted to join as word gets around about how much fun the students have been having.
“I've played chess since I was 4,” Fazekas said. “My dad taught me. (The club) just took off. It was more than good grades and good behavior. It built meaning. The kids that were struggling behaviorally were here, wanting to play. They were doing everything they could to be a part of it. It became like a family. It's kind of cool to be part of the chess club now.”
It's not just about playing chess, he said. Students work on their skills, doing 30 or more chess puzzles a week, playing each other, playing online, memorizing openings and learning strategies from both sides of the board.
“They do 20 or 30 (chess) puzzles every week,” Fazekas said.
Such puzzles, for people unfamiliar with them, are available in books for chess players. They're drawings of chessboards with the pieces set up in different configurations, and the player studies the board and decides what will happen next if the pieces are moved in various ways.
The goal is to be able to checkmate an opponent no matter what moves they make, within a specified number of moves. Some of the puzzles come from actual games, and some are made up, and solutions are in the back of the book. Poring over these puzzles, Fazekas said, hones students' skills. They also work on classic openings drills.
The point of these puzzles and drills, Fazekas said, is make the game second nature. In a tournament, nerves can get the better of them, and he wants them to be able to remember what to do even if they're nervous.
Raezhene learned to play at home and joined the club, she said, because it sounded like fun. She admitted, with a smile, that she was nervous before the Peoria tournament. The team tied for fifth in its grade-level division in its first tournament. None of them had rankings yet.
“It was fun, and I would like to go back,” she said.
Fazekas is trying to raise funds to take a team to the Greater Chicago K-12 Chess Championship in February, with the hope of following that up with the National Chess Championships in Tennessee later in 2018.
The top finisher from the team was Christian Morrison. J.D. Groves, also a fourth-grader, was the third member of the group at the tournament. He said he didn't learn to play chess until he joined the club.
That's why, Fazekas said, he's so proud of them for their competitive spirit. Many of them are new to the game, but they work hard. They also have to watch their behavior and grades, because even if chess club has taken on a life of its own and is no longer purely an incentive, he still determines who goes to tournaments and he takes those things into account.
Adalyn Cruitt is only in third grade, but Fazekas said she's one of his best players and will be a force. She said she likes playing because it's interesting and a challenge.
“I hear from everybody, 'Can I play? Can I be part of it?' If we just had enough boards and we need to add another table in the library,” Fazekas said. “Now we have a kindergarten program where we're doing chess centers in the kindergarten, and the kindergartners are learning and the parents want it. Why not make this a thing for the community?”