By lunch time Saturday, TMP-Marian chess coach Kevin Nyberg could report at least one upset by a member of the Hays chess team at the statewide tournament in the former Kennedy School building.
“One of my junior high players beat a better player,” said Nyberg, who reviews every game with each of the Hays players. “His opponent made a bad mistake.”
About 30 Hays students played in Saturday’s all-day tournament, an event sanctioned by the Kansas Scholastic Chess Association. That included about 12 from Hays High and 12 from Thomas More Prep-Marian.
Each student played six games, each one factoring into the average they carry, based on how many games they win or lose. Winning over a stronger player boosts the average, while losing against a weaker player pulls the average down, explained TMP-Marian chess coach Randy Brull, also a part-time chemistry and physics teacher.
The Hays tournament has been going on for more than 20 years, started by TMP-Marian students who asked Brull to let them form a chess club and have tournaments.
Standing in the Kennedy gym Saturday morning, Brull was observing the more than 30 kids scattered in pairs around nine tables, taking turns moving their pieces. Completely quiet, the only sound was random clicks from players slapping their timers to reset them after each move.
“The clocks make sure the games don’t go too long,” Brull said. “Each player has 30 minutes to make all their moves. So the game has to end in less than an hour. The kids know how to manage their time. That’s another thing they learn.”
About 40 kids participated in the tournament, including those from Lakin and La Crosse, some 10 who were fifth grade and younger, and 30 who were sixth grade through high school. Students from Wichita and McPherson had also registered, but snowy weather canceled those plans.
“These two are going to need some refereeing,” said Brull, in the competition room Saturday, nodding quietly toward two third-grade boys. “The little kids tend to get in a hurry. Chess teaches so many life skills; for the little kids it’s taking turns.”
It also challenges attention span, Brull said.
“I work with the younger kids and sometimes I see that a 15-minute game is a long time for them,” he said. “They also learn they have to make choices, and there’s also sportsmanship. Sometimes they don’t agree with the person on the other side of the board, and they have to work it out.”
So far Saturday he hadn’t been called to referee a single board for any of the older kids.
“The little ones, when they’re not sure of a rule, that’s when I get called,” he said.
The little kids also get easily excited, sometimes forgetting to write down their moves. They’ve learned that each square on the board is identified with a letter-number combination, like b2 or g5, and each piece by a letter, such as Q for queen and K for king.
“They’re supposed to write down all their moves if they’re in fourth grade on up,” Brull said.
For Elizabeth Dickman, a 10th-grader at Hays High, Saturday was her first time at a tournament. She started playing a year ago at school, after playing chess a few times with her family. She didn’t understand the game until she joined the chess team.
“It’s fun and it’s interesting and it’s a good competitive game,” Dickman said. She likes the hands-on part of chess, she said, noting she also enjoys other hands-on activities, like making a two-wheel dolly in her high-school welding class, sewing pajamas for her Gemini Juniors 4H projects, and fixing things around her home.
“My family always comes to me if they need something fixed,” she said. During the competition break Saturday, Dickman said, “I have not won any games, but it’s still been fun though.”
Some of the students also attend the chess sessions Brull has hosted for 20 years at the Hays Public Library. The sessions, open to any student, are held every Friday at 4 p.m. from September through March, and during June and July.
There are tournaments every Saturday across the state, and the Hays students usually attend at least one a month, including the state tournament, which this year will be at Emporia in March.
Out in the relaxation room on Saturday, Nyberg sat at a table, taking turns with each Hays participant to review their games.
“We go over their games, because that’s how they improve,” said Nyberg.
Claudine Stein, a seventh-grader at TMP-Marian, had just finished a game and was seated at the table opposite Nyberg, a chess board between them. Nyberg followed Stein’s notes from her last game, which she won in 70 moves playing as black. He slid a white pawn forward, mimicking her opponent’s first move.
“Does anybody know the name of this opening?” Nyberg asked of the students huddled around the table to watch.
“The Poland opening,” said one student.
“You’re close,” Nyberg said. “No, it’s the Polish opening. It can also be called the orangutan. It’s not a good opening. Pawn to b4 is just wrong, explain why.”
“It doesn’t cover the center,” Stein answered.
Nyberg continued, “White’s breaking every rule in the book,” he said. “Claudine, you were doing the right thing. … That was good, that was a lot of improvement.”
Stein, who loves art and doodling and is good at math, plays chess at home a lot, too, against brother Eli and her dad, Jason Stein.
“My brother thinks that one of these days I’ll be able to beat dad,” she said. “I think maybe probably another year of practicing and maybe I’ll at least be able to tie him.”