After this weekend's state tournament, seven Nellie Stone Johnson students are going to nationals.
In a brightly lit conference room at the North Community YMCA last week, ninth-grader Simon Alonso leaned over a chess board and took out sixth-grader Ronaldo Gabino's queen with a flourish. Nearby, Simon's brother Freddy, also a sixth-grader, concentrated on protecting his king from 10th-grader Tristan Reep's bishop and queen, both lined up to unseat him.
There were lots of clues that these and other matches in the room weren't just friendly games of chess. The younger boys took careful notes of every move they and their opponents made. Each turn was deliberate and unhurried, but the boys punctuated each one with a swat to the timer. Those who weren't playing the five high school-age mentors were paired up against community members -- volunteers from the Minneapolis Chess Club.
Seven boys from nearby Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary School are being groomed for the state chess tournament in St. Paul on Saturday and Sunday. After that, it's only six weeks until the national tournament in Nashville. All year, the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders have played chess twice a week in an after-school program.
Their practice has been amped up for the past couple of months with these intensive Tuesday night sessions at the Y, adding up to seven hours a week, in addition to occasional weekend tournaments. They play, they take feedback, and they study tactics with names like the Skewer, the Fork and the Discovered Check.
"Chess is an easy game to learn but a very hard game to master," said their coach, Leif Neilson, a math teacher at the north Minneapolis elementary school. "They're challenged by playing someone who is definitely more experienced than they are."
Neilson has been challenging math students to chess games for years. In 2010, the K-9 division of the United States Chess Federation National Junior High Championship was held in Minneapolis. The decision to take a few of the best players in his after-school club was easy. Taking on clubs from all over the country, they took second place in their division.
Last year, with financial support from the Minneapolis Chess Club, he took a group to nationals in Columbus, Ohio. Again, second place.
At Nellie Stone Johnson, 97 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, well above the Minneapolis average. The boys know they're in for a rare treat in traveling to nationals. The nonprofit Minneapolis Chess is covering their airfare and lodging for the trip, as it does for other talented kids in the city.
"Without that, we wouldn't have access," Neilson said.
The group also is working on establishing a program at Hall Elementary School, also in north Minneapolis, said program director Jack Mangan.
The boys come with great parental support and the commitment to improve, Neilson said. The school proudly displays the team's various trophies and plaques in a well-placed window ledge, visible in the school's lobby.
Their high school mentors are graduates of Neilson's program.
"I get to help with the kids and teach them what I know," said Tristan Reep, now a member of Patrick Henry High School's team. "I want them to be better than I am."
The boys say they're there for the fun of the game.
Ronaldo Gabino said it's easy to lose himself as he concentrates on a game.
"It feels real, like you're really in a battle," he said. "I sink real deep into some games, and all I'm set on is the game."
Neilson said he can see academic benefits in chess players who take his math classes. He takes pride in teaching a "lifelong skill" as well as the more abstract lessons a kid can learn over a chess board.
"It's the thought process involved," he said, "needing to think several moves ahead, predict or react to something you didn't see coming, and readjust your plan."
That isn't lost on his charges. Freddy Alonso, whose 9-year-old brother, Angel, also is headed to Nashville, said he can see his grades improving as he continues to practice chess.
"Maybe it's because chess makes me think a lot more than I used to," he said. "It's important to think in these kind of games."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409