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The City Journals

Willow Springs-Draper chess tournament gives elementary students challenge

May 07, 2018 03:08PM ● By Julie Slama

The long-standing chess tournament between Willow Springs and Draper elementaries not only teaches students how to play the game, but also gives them a chance to compete against students at their own level. (Lynnleah Smart/Willow Springs Elementary)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Draper Elementary’s Gavin Christensen had a smile on his face after winning the first match of the annual Willow Springs-Draper chess tournament. 

“My brother Ethan helps me a lot,” he said. “He has a lot of trophies.”

Gavin — and his peers from both schools — compete against each other in the tournament, playing students of similar ability. Both schools play under a chess system developed by parents Scott and Sasha Johnson 11 years ago, when they coached at Willow Springs.

The Johnsons started chess at Willow Springs after searching for a regular chess club for their children and not finding one with a meeting time that worked for their family. They came up with a basic structure and curriculum based on input from parents running chess programs at other schools, Sasha Johnson said in 2008.     

The chess program, which continued through the coaching hands of parent Karen Hunter before current Willow Springs volunteer coaches Lynnleah and Rob Smart took over, is set up on levels, starting from pawn, with each level being named after a chess piece. Pawn-level students know each chess piece and how to move them, and then must pass a quiz before they move on to high-level strategies and tactics, such as pin, skewer, fork and how to checkmate with a king and rook or with a king and queen.

“Each level has tips and worksheets so students are learning all about the game,” said Draper teacher and coach Christina Van Dam, who brought the program to her school. “The tournament here is unique as we match up our players at a certain level to theirs, so our pawn players will play their pawn players all the way up to king. This gives them someone new to play at their level and challenges all the students.”

Lynnleah Smart said that often former students — McKay Neyman, Aveia Smart and Eli Kimball — as well as those who have become king-level players, such as fourth-grader Ian Felts and fifth-grader Cody Hunter, help beginning players.

Recently, five other Willow Springs students became kings: Jacob Wilson, Chaz Neyman, Miles McAffee, Jacob Wilson and Steven Xia.

“There are so many cool things about students learning chess, but we’re also seeing them help one another, which is rewarding,” Lynnleah Smart said. “Some kids are coming just to help others learn.”

She said they meet with about 78 kindergartners through fifth-graders on Friday mornings before school, which helps them mentally prepare for the school day.

“These kids are a good group. They’re waking up early to play chess. This gets them up and thinking. They’re wanting to learn something hard in their spare time; they’re being creative and working to improve and stretch their minds,” Lynnleah Smart said.

Fifth-grader Ben Street, who has been playing for two years, was at the tournament. His dad, Will, taught him how to play and was at the tournament to cheer him on.

“He is getting a little better by better as he has learned the tactics,” Will Street said. “He’s a thinker and coming to play chess in the morning has helped.”

Van Dam said she has two dads who regularly help with her students when they meet, and sometimes two more volunteer.

Gavin’s dad, Dave, regularly helps and said that by thinking several moves ahead, it helps students learn strategy.

“By thinking two, three, four, five moves ahead, it improves their game so they can focus on capturing their opponents’ pieces,” he said. “That helps them with thinking with math. It also teaches them what it’s like to compete, do their best, how to win or lose gracefully, be a good sport and make friends.”

Those are some of the reasons Willow Springs parent Scottie Shull wants her first-grade son, Lonnie, to learn chess.

“We want him to learn because it’s a fun, social skill that transcends all age groups, so he could play with his grandpa, cousin or anyone,” she said. “It’s a lot of mental strategy and that’s a critical skill for him to learn. It’s also important that he’s building friendships outside the classroom.”

For her son, who was there to watch the tournament, the best part of chess is “to play it and beat my dad and my mom.”

Tournament results at the king and queen table were Gavin Christensen, Draper, first; Cody Hunter, Willow Springs, second; Ian Felts, Willow Springs, third. On the rook table, the results are Jacob Laker, first; Isaac Horstmann, second; Miles McAffee, third; all are from Willow Springs. In the bishop division, first place went to Ben Street; second place was Sage Harmsen; and third, Avi Lahoty; all students are from Willow Springs. In the knight division, Willow Springs’ Benjamin Fuller placed first; his teammate Joe Covey took second; and Draper Elementary’s Jag Anderson was third. Draper Elementary swept the pawn division with Connor Call, first; Talmage Watson, second; and Chris Johns, third.