Young minds compete on the game board

| 3 | Chess Event Coverage


Web Posted: 02/17/2008 12:29 AM CST


Jenny LaCoste-Caputo


Harmony Hills Elementary School was the scene of a phenomenon Saturday rarely witnessed in school: The cafeteria was jam-packed with kids and their parents, filling every table and lining the walls, yet you could almost hear a pin drop.

Students ranging in age from 6 to 11 sat face to face, their eyes focused on the chessboards between them, brows furrowed, jaws tensed, the air around them thick with the sheer brainpower of it all.

Gage Henry and Sam Walker were locked in an epic battle. Gage, a fifth-grader at Canyon Ridge Elementary School, clutched a small blue pillow with a silly face on it for good luck. He made rhythmic noises, "Bong, bong, bong, bong," quietly as he waited for Sam, also 10 and from Harmony Hills, to make his move.

When it was finally Gage's turn, he placed his fingers lightly on a chess piece and chanted rapidly: "No, no, no, no, no, no," then finally "Yesssss," as he made his decision and dropped the piece with a flourish.

Sam's style was polar opposite. His eyes barely moved from the chessboard. Shoulders hunched and head bowed in concentration, he made his moves quickly, decisively and with no comment.

Paul Slusarewicz, a former parent at Harmony Hills, organized Saturday's open chess tournament, which drew about 120 elementary school students from all over the San Antonio area. Though Slusarewicz and his family moved to Austin recently, he still helps out with Harmony Hills' chess club when he can. It's the reason his daughter, still in elementary school and already a two-time state chess champion, first became interested in the game.

Slusarewicz wasn't really into the game until his daughter became involved. Since then, he's learned to appreciate it.

"It can't be anything but a good thing for kids," he said. "They learn discipline, patience and taking responsibility for their actions. If they lose, they can't blame anyone. It's because of a decision they made."

Kyle Tschirhart helped represent the chess team from Stone Oak Elementary School on Saturday. The third-grader just started playing competitively this year and is already hooked.

"I like the challenge of it," said Kyle, 9, who learned to play from his dad, Gary Tschirhart.

Danny Rafajko, chess team sponsor and fourth-grade teacher at Stone Oak, said he loves the idea of chess teams in elementary schools because it can be a big ego boost for kids once they get the hang of it.

"I've had kids who maybe weren't the best at spelling or sports, but they're good at this," he said. "It just gives them the chance to shine."

Rafajko didn't know much about the game when he offered to lead the team four years ago. Now he enjoys it, too, though he's the first to admit, he's not the most talented in the room.

He practices with the kids in his fourth-grade class when possible, such as Friday, when rain meant inside recess.

"I lost for the first time," he said of his Friday match.

But that's what's so great about chess, he said. Any given match, he may be outwitted by a 9-year-old.

"I'm a 27-year-old, 6-foot-6-inch guy — I'm going to school them in basketball," Rafajko said. "But they can beat me at this."