In 1983, Brian Ribnick began coaching the chess team at Burnsville’s Metcalf Junior High with a lofty goal: to be the top junior high chess program in the country.
After 30 years, thanks to a passion for young people and the game, it may be time for Ribnick to declare a “checkmate.”
In addition to building the state’s most successful junior high program, Ribnick has helped foster a focus on chess across the entire Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district.
With 81 members, Metcalf ranks as Minnesota’s largest junior high team. The team has captured 27 state championships and 14 national titles, and it’s regularly ranked in the top five nationally.
Recently, the team took first place at the Minnesota State Chess Association Scholastic Chess Championships, and it will compete at the National Junior High Championships in Atlanta April 25-27.
One of the program’s secrets to success, Ribnick said, was aiming high from the get-go. Like many of the things he teaches students in chess club, which meets twice a week after school, the lesson applies to both chess and life.
“I like to say, ‘It’s better to aim for the stars and miss than aim for a pile of manure and hit,’ ” he said.
Another key component of the program is recruitment. Ribnick isn’t above enticing Metcalf students to join by holding giant monthly parties, held at a water park or featuring paintball and pizza.
“I had to think outside the box for recruiting,” he said. “You can have the best program ever, but if you have three kids in the room, it doesn’t matter.”
Once Ribnick, who also teaches math, gets students interested, a love of the game takes over, he said. “What happens is, chess is addicting, but they don’t know it yet,” he said.
“I tell them, ‘I promise to make you a good player. I’m going to teach you to be good at something, really good at something,’ ” he said.
Since 1984, under Ribnick’s guidance, the whole district has emphasized the game, beginning in kindergarten. Every elementary school has an after-school club with a coach.
The clubs act as a feeder program for the junior high and high school teams, and students’ interests are further piqued in fourth grade, when Ed Zelkind, a chess master, visits classes during a “chess residency” to teach the game.
A passion for the game
On a Tuesday night during chess club, the students going to nationals listened to John Bartholomew speak about strategies for opening a game. Bartholomew, whom Ribnick called the team’s “secret weapon,” is the only Minnesota-born international master, an honor earned because of his high rating.
Downstairs, other students practiced their endgame, working through scenarios encountered as they and their opponents make the last few moves in a game. “Ribster, we think we got it!” a student shouted across the room.
He didn’t get it. But that was fine by Ribnick, who explained that in order to get good at chess, you have to lose thousands of games.
Eighth-grader Evan Rabe, who has played since fourth grade, determined the right moves several times. Chess is “really all about strategy and the mind thinking, and so it’s really satisfying when you win,” he said.
For Ribnick, a passion for chess began when he was 11 years old and his dad taught him to play. He later took a chess class and was “injected with the chess drug,” he said.
For him, the hours spent in junior high chess club were among the most meaningful in his life, and they allowed him to build strong friendships. Now, he hopes his students have the same experience.
The benefits of chess
In addition to being a coach, Ribnick is also an advocate for all of the positive things chess can bring to kids’ lives. “I’m 100 percent convinced that every student that’s in it has benefited,” he said.
The game teaches kids problem-solving skills of all kinds, improves grades in school and builds concentration, he said. Ribnick said he’s seen students with attention issues “sit there for hours, especially if they want to win, playing chess.”
Perhaps most importantly, they become “completely committed to what their brain can do, and it’s amazing,” he said.
Eighth-grader Victor Sanchez, a player for two years, said that playing chess has helped his concentration. “Now, I can actually sit down and study for a test,” he said.
Seventh-grader Pratik Nehete said he plays for fun. Nehete was paired up against a master chess player at the state tournament and tied. “To draw somebody with that much more skill than me was kind of amazing,” he said.
Jenna Lichty, an eighth-grader who has played since kindergarten, said she plays for “the mental brain energy” the game requires. She’s one of a handful of girls on the team, a trend that holds true at higher levels of chess across the country and internationally, Ribnick said.
A long-term goal is to be rated higher than her brother, but that’s not the reason she plays. “Anyone can join,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be for the smart people. It’s for all ages, and it’s a never-ending sport.”