Burnsville chess program has all the right moves

  • Article by: ERIN AD and AMP;#XAD;LER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 12, 2014 - 6:58 PM

Coach Brian Ribnick has spent 30 years build­ing Minnesota’s most suc­cess­ful juni­or high chess team.

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Seventh graders Collin Ridgeway, left, and Josh Holtzleiter worked with teacher and chess instructor Brian Ribnick, center, on their endgames at Metcalf Junior High in Burnsville. The Burnsville chess program has existed for decades and become an integral part of the district’s identity.

Photo: JOEL KOYAMA • jkoyama@startribune.com,

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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.

  • related content

  • Seventh-grader Zander Burton practiced with the Metcalf chess team, which recently won another state championship and will play in the national championship tournament in Atlanta this month.

  • Seventh-grader Pratik Nehete practiced last week. The district begins its focus on chess in the elementary schools, every one of which has an after-school chess club.

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