Iron chess

Southwest High School chess team wins national championship in first year of competition

Southwest High School freshman Nick Graves told his mother he was exhausted at the end of his final chess game at the National High School Chess Championship in April because he had to do a &#8220crazy psycho move” to win.

That risky, daredevil move is called &#8220rook to C7,” which &#8220looks really weird,” Nick said.

In the process, Nick's opponent could have captured his rook. He didn't, and the move awed Nick's teammates and helped him climb to the seventh best chess player in the nation in his age group. His efforts also aided his teammates; the nine-member Southwest team came in first in the second highest-ranked K-12 category. All told, there were five levels of varying chess abilities. Forty-four teams and 1,457 students competed at the Milwaukee tournament held April 22-23.

Before claiming the national title, Southwest scored several other victories this year, including beating the previously undefeated Burnsville team.

The high school students will also receive a letter in chess. Nobody, not even coach Alex Adams, expected the team that just formed this year to do so well. None of the students have private coaches, as some do at other schools. They meet once a week for an hour before school.

Adams, who performs lung research at Regents Hospital and also coaches the Lake Harriet Community School team, said he doesn't offer much instruction.

His philosophy is simply, &#8220You learn by playing. I give them a place to play the game.”

Adams said any student can shine in chess. &#8220You don't know who'll be good at chess,” he said. &#8220These kids are highly self-motivated. Playing chess meets the needs of their competitive drive.”

That's not all. There's plenty of drama, intrigue, psychology and risks on the board. The Southwest students had a strong start, were wiped out in the middle and came back in the end. The winning margin was a half-point, scored against a Maryland team.

During the tournament, the chess stars ate, drank and slept chess. Hundreds of games were set in a big room of the Milwaukee Convention Center. Even though the room was packed with games happening side-by-side, all was quiet. Nobody is allowed to talk while games are underway. Individually, everyone played seven games. The games can last up to four hours. Even when they were off the clock, they huddled around boards to analyze their moves.

Parent Kathy Graves said her son Nick was capable of beating her in chess when he was in 1st grade.

&#8220Chess teaches patience and not to lose your cool. It helps you remain calm and thoughtful,” she said.

She said Nick also excels in sports because he's a strategic thinker.

For the love of the game

The Southwest students' weekly practices, which last an hour before school, are rowdy. The teens are mouthy, cynical and loud. They stand up and yell. They don't fit stereotypes of chess players.

James Geach, a senior who's been playing chess for eight years, got involved in chess after he confronted some bullies who were beating up his brother, Chris, who's also on the team. The bullies challenged him to a duel in chess. If he won, they would leave his brother alone. James lost, but he studied and returned the next week to try again. He won and he's been hooked since. &#8220There's a lot of passion, love and friendship in the game,” he said.

Freshman Eric Weiner gets so into chess that he gets sweaty during chess games and has to drink a lot of water. He said the national contest was nerve-wracking. &#8220As the rounds went on, it got more intense. You're compelled to do better each round, but it gets tougher each time,” he said.

Weiner started playing chess at Kenwood Elementary School. He pursued it at Lake Harriet and has already attended five national competitions. His favorite version of chess is the five-minute blitz game. Weiner usually opens with a move called the &#8220queen's gambit,” which involves pushing the queen's pawn and taking the board's center. He also enjoys playing tennis, football, basketball and skiing.

Junior Evan Krause also has plenty of other interests outside of chess. He likes rock-climbing, hunting, fishing, rowing, biking, swimming and running. Krause, whose shaggy locks hang near his eyes, was a champion swimmer as a freshman. The breaststroke is his best skill. Krause also works part-time at Dairy Queen.

There are 30 chess teams in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). The district also produced another big winner. North High School's Kevin Wasiluk scored seventh in the top category.

Chess culture is growing across the country. Other reputable teams come from New York, Texas and Florida.

&#8220We're trying to build a culture,” Adams said. &#8220We're trying to show that it's acceptable and not nerdy.”