Checkmates: Chess is king for Quail Run team

Kids take game to nationals

Eight Quail Run School students, armed with chocolate milk, gather around their Expert-ranked coach at a recent chess club practice.

Coach Steve Robinson is discussing the Bughouse Blitz and other games the team will play in the weekend’s national chess championship in Nashville, Tenn.

“Goose the rook and see what happens,” Steve suggests to sixth-grader Keil Eggers from across the chess board. The players form a horseshoe around the table, and hands tentatively reach out, move a bishop or pawn, determining which offense to try on the next move.

Keil takes another turn; so does Steve. The teammates have withdrawn from play to see where this will lead. Keil moves his bishop again.

“Are we happy here?” Steve asks the kids.

“No,” says fifth-grader Alan Shi, who’s shaking his head. “It’s white smoke.”

Quail Run School has a winning tradition in state and national chess play, and it’s part of an active coalition of teams throughout the Lawrence school district, including at Wakarusa Valley School and Southwest Junior High School. Quail Run was co-winner of the National Chess Federation Championship in 2001 for its age division.

Among the Quail Run team’s regional play, Keil is this year’s state champ in the K-6 Open Division.

“I felt pretty good,” Keil said. “It was the best tournament I ever had. I won all of my games.”

Chess players Cole Reams, first grade, Austin Clapp, sixth grade, Andrei Elliott, fourth grade, Rozie Jordan, sixth grade, and Keil Eggers, sixth grade, work on chess moves during practice after school at Quail Run School. The group worked last week with coach Steve Robinson, an Expert-level chess player and parent of former Quail Run students.

Keil, who began playing chess in third grade, likes going to tournaments with his friends on the weekends, and he says the game is both fun and beneficial.

“I think it helps me in school,” he said. “Chess strengthens your mind because it’s a mind game.”

Learning experience

The Quail Run program doesn’t focus on the champions, though. In fact, it’s first-grader Cole Reams who’s making the most moves during practice.

It make no difference that Cole, 7, and Steve, a parent of former Quail Run students and pro-tournament player since the ’70s, are neither close in age or experience. Cole watches Steve move a piece, and he counters by bringing his queen into play.

“I like that,” Steve tells him. “That’s an aggressive move.”

Here’s how Lawrence school district students performed at the 2005 Supernationals III in Nashville, Tenn.:Quail Run School: The first team took 14th place in the K-6 championship division. Players were Austin Clapp, Keil Eggers, Harrison Helmick and Alan Shi.The second Quail Run team took 21st place in the K-8 under 750 division. Players were Andrei Elliott, Cole Reams and Caleb Borovik.Southwest Junior High School: The team took 12th place in the K-12 under 1,500 Division. Players were Thomas Clark, Thomas Reams, Keely Stenseng and Sean Stenseng.More Lawrence students who participated: Roy Wedge, Central Junior High School; Douglas Rawlings and Nathaniel McFadden, South Junior High School; Steven Hamblen, Kellen Cross and Jed Borovik, Southwest; and Kenneth Blevins, Darren Rawlings and Owen McFadden, Wakarusa Valley School.

The other players are attentive, still, 30 minutes into practice, and sixth-grader Harrison Helmick is fumbling with a rubber band as Steve reads aloud strategy from a guide propped in front of him. Harrison’s studying the board as he secures the rubber band around two pieces out of play. Keil can see the irresistible possibilities of this makeshift catapult, so he picks up a knight out of play, positions it in front of the rubber band, pulls back and volleys it into Harrison’s lap.

“Put the rubber band away, please,” Steve tells the boys. “It’s a distraction.”

Harrison complies and continues studying the action on the board. He steadies a pawn when Steve’s sleeve catches it a few moments later.

The results

Steve says he’s pleased with the team’s performance going into the tournament.

“I don’t have any expectations at this point,” he said Wednesday. “It depends on how focused and how hard the kids work in the next couple of days. An excellent result would be fifth place; a perfect would be second or third. If they have bad luck, it could be down to 10th or lower.”

Steve became a chess fan during the famed Bobby Fischer contests of the ’70s, while he had an advantageous job as a copy boy at the Wichita Eagle Beacon. The fastest way to learn Fischer’s moves would come play-by-play over the teletype machine, so Steve and other chess fans would gather and learn strategy.

“I made a comment about one of the moves,” Steve said, “And one of the players said, ‘You ought to play in a tournament.’ Then I played competitively on and off for the last 33 years.”

Steve trained formally under California chess player Richard Shorman in the 1990s, and he brought his teaching methods to Quail Run.

“It’s taught by Richard Shorman, so you’re only going to see it in the Bay Area and in Lawrence,” Steve says.

Chess players work on moves under guidance from coach Steve Robinson. The Quail Run School team participated in a national tournament last weekend in Nashville, Tenn.

He says he hopes to continue coaching the team.

“It’s great to see the enthusiasm of the kids. There’s enough of a chess culture at Quail Run that the young ones can really benefit from the modeling they’re getting from older kids,” Steve says.

Cole’s big play

Steve moves a knight. Sixth-grader Austin Clapp and fourth-grader Andrei Elliott join the action to protect the king.

“How many moves to checkmate?” Steve asks the team.

The players count aloud, touching the piece they’d move next, looking back to Steve’s formation to anticipate the next move.

Cole jumps in. “I know!”

He moves his men to indicate where he’ll strike next.

Steve claps him on the shoulder.

“You got it! You got it!” he says. “Now, how many moves to checkmate?”

“Four,” Cole announces.

“Very good,” Steve replies. He looks around the table. “Are we happy here?”