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Chess still king, even for young players

Sep 10, 2023

entertainment, Sanford NC

You’re forgiven if you haven't heard of perhaps the best school chess team in the area and certainly one of the best in the state. After going 14-1-1in a local high school tournament in November, Canterbury Royal Academy — out of Cameron, North Carolina — entered six high school and middle school students in the N.C. Carolina Chess State Championship in Raleigh in the spring and finished 11th overall.

If you’re already eager to seek enrollment information on Canterbury Royal, don't. The admission process is highly selective. Also, the name was made up, strictly for chess purposes.

This chess powerhouse is a home school, the children of Chaplain Joey (Lt. Col.) and Carrie Odell, a military family with 15 children — six biological, nine adopted — and while chess isn't part of the official curriculum, it is a big part of the education in the Odell home, err, Canterbury Royal.

"It's more of a family activity than anything," says Odell, whose military career has sent him and his family all over the country. "For one, it's a lot cheaper than something like travel baseball — it doesn't cost much more than some crackers and juice if we play in a tournament. More importantly, chess teaches you real-life skills. It makes you think. There are tactical, strategic and risk/reward lessons in this game. It makes you do all of this while keeping the end in mind.

"Chess is not just a game. It's life happening on 64 squares."

It's a game whose origins date back to the 7th century in Ancient Iran (some argue the game started in India). The oldest known chess manual dates back to 840; the game has for centuries been used to teach everything from war strategy to mathematics.

And despite competition today with television and video games, smartphones and short attention spans, chess is more popular than ever, especially with young people. The pandemic in 2020, the release of Netflix's highly popular "The Queen's Gambit" series and the creation of Pogchamps — think "chess in the YouTuber world" — all formed a perfect storm that has put the game back into popular culture in the last few years.

Look no further than Sanford, North Carolina, to see the game's growing popularity firsthand. There wasn't an empty seat (or board) at the Sanford Knights Chess Club's most recent meeting in late May, and local schools are filling classrooms with after-school chess club meetings.

It's all a beautiful sight to Jeff Bruek, a self-proclaimed chess amateur who loves the game and has taken it upon himself to not only direct the club in Sanford, but also help coach local schools and assist those who already have organized teams. Bruek only really got into chess in 2018 after his retirement, but he was so taken by the strategy and the excitement and tension of it that it became much more than a hobby.

The Sanford Knights Chess Club began with four people that year. The roll today is closer to 40, with anywhere between 15 and 25 players in attendance for Tuesday night club meetings (which consist of a little bit of business and a lot of casual and competitive chess). The club has bounced around locations in the last five years and in May started meeting in the community room of a local church.

"I wouldn't say I’m the club leader, because I’m not the best player … not by a longshot," says Bruek. "I’m more of the middle man. I do it really because I have the time to volunteer and put the work into it. I’m not a great chess player by any means, but when I got into this I wanted to try my hand at tournaments in Raleigh or places like Asheboro. I would go there and get absolutely clobbered, sometimes by little kids. But over the past four or five years, my levels have gone up."

Bruek started at a 500-rated player, according to U.S. Chess Federation rankings, which is the third-lowest tier. He's since risen to the 800s, or Class F. Good to great players can be found in the 1000s, and you’re considered an "expert" if you crack the 2000 level. Senior masters are ranked 2400 and higher, and grandmasters — of which there are only about 2,000 in the world — are ranked 2600 and higher. The world's highest-ranked player, Magnus Carlsen, has a 2882 ranking.

He knows the basics, and more importantly, he knows how to be patient with newcomers to the game. Bruek has coached and helped chess teams at All Saints Christian Academy in Cameron and at SanLee Middle and B.T. Bullock Elementary schools in Sanford. He's also gotten to know coaches and instructors at other schools and checks in regularly on participation and successes at those schools.

"I think chess, especially with young kids, enhances their focus," Bruek says. "You’d be amazed at how a roomful of kids who are noisy, boisterous and bouncing off the walls can get really quiet when the chess boards come out. I’ve had one mom tell me that if her kids get to arguing or fighting or just getting on her nerves, she tells them to play chess. It works 100 percent of the time."

Chess also gets them to think critically, he says. It forces them to use their brain — think about strategy and consequences — before they make a move. It takes most fourth graders who have zero experience with chess about eight hours to develop a basic understanding of the moves and the goal, Bruek says. When a school club meets once or twice a week, that means much of that first few months is spent on the fundamentals.

"People ask me, ‘Don't the kids get bored?’ and I say absolutely note," he says. "There's excitement. There's tension. It gets ratcheted up with every move. Even games that go 30 minutes or even an hour, you’re totally engrossed in the game."

When Kim Ashby started teaching math at SanLee Middle School, there was already a chess club run by a now former teacher. The club — along with many extracurricular activities — went by the wayside during the pandemic, and when in-person learning resumed in 2021, Ashby decided to relaunch the club. That first day, eight students signed up. Today, that number is up to 18.

Like Bruek, Ashby is modest when asked about her own abilities. She says she's "decent" and can give an intermediate player a tough game on any given day. She knows enough — and she's been a teacher long enough — to be a pretty good coach to her students.

"About half of the students who join the club have a beginner's knowledge of chess," she says. "They know how the pieces move and the logistics of the game, but they are generally new to it. The other half have no idea how to play. I start by teaching them the rules and how the pieces move, and then we work on strategies. I then pair students based on ability and go from there.

"The improvement I see from these students, in just a few short months of time, is amazing. I also have them join which offers free tutorials and an avenue for them to play each other as well as me. Many of these students have quickly advanced and outplay me."

The SanLee team took home a first-place trophy in a local non-sanctioned tournament in January, and Ashby's students compete regularly in scholastic competitions offered by the local chess club on weekends. The week they brought home the big trophy, an additional five students joined the team after it was promoted in the school announcements.

"School chess clubs offer a social, competitive activity that caters to those that are not athletes. Chess is a sport of the mind that kids enjoy," Ashby says. "It also allows students to be involved in an extracurricular activity that fosters a sense of belonging while building confidence, higher-order thinking skills and social skills. While these kids still enjoy video games and Youtbube, those activities do not offer the satisfaction that comes with being a part of a team.

"That's why we continue to grow."

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Daniel McLemore is the highest-rated chess player in Lee County Schools, and as of June 1, he's still only a freshman.

A student at Southern Lee High School, McLemore is more than a great player. He's a student of the game. He enjoys reading books and watching videos on chess theory. He loves the history of the game. He studies the strategies of the grandmasters. On Tuesday nights, he makes easy work of most players his age (and of most adults). And he's up for the challenge against some of the best adults in the county.

Knowing this, it's somewhat surprising to learn he's only been playing about three years — and playing competitively only two.

"I enjoy playing the game, but I think what I enjoy even more is learning it and learning how to become better at it," says McLemore. "Every game, I’m learning something new. Every game is different. There's always something I maybe didn't notice in a previous game, or something I learn watching others play."

McLemore performed well in his first state tournament in February, winning three, losing three and drawing one. Southern Lee High School doesn't have a chess club or team (something he hopes changes in the near future), so Tuesday nights are his best chance to seek out competition, and the Sanford Knights provides his best opportunity to compete in sanctioned events. It's also become a sort-of community for him.

"Everyone knows everyone here," he says while studying a chess board, a few moves away from a checkmate against the author of this piece (who lasted much longer than he thought he would). "Chess is like the universal language in this room. I enjoy being a part of this."

Arguably the area's best student player is graduating senior Ben Pickens of Chatham Charter School who qualified for nationals in Washington, D.C., and finished in the top half of the pack in his division. According to Bruek, the top elementary student this year was Grace Christian's Samantha Drake (a fifth grader), and the highest-rated middle school player is Charlotte Odell from that pesky Canterbury Royal Academy.

Odell's father has traveled the world, and he's been to cities and parts of the globe where chess is not only a pastime for young people, but a means to keep them off the streets or out of trouble. He's thrilled to see local schools grow their programs and to see more young people interested in the game.

"It arms people to live better lives," he says. "It gets them to think in ways that today's entertainment and today's culture simply won't do. That's the value in it, and that's why it will always be around."

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Interested in learning more about the Sanford Knights Chess Club? Email Jeff Bruek at [email protected].