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.”