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All the right moves

An Opryland chess tournament brings good news about America's kids

WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KIDS TODAY?" THE IRAQ War not only liberated millions of people but also reduced some moaning and groaning here at home. As awful as many movies and music CDs are, as troubled as many American families and schools are, some must be doing things right to produce soldiers who display both combat fitness and compassion.

It's a long way from Baghdad to the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, but similarly good news emanated on May 9-11 from two giant ballrooms featuring row upon row of trestle tables and folding chairs on a concrete floor. On the tables sat 1,200 vinyl roll-up chessboards each holding 32 chess pieces, with a chess clock next to each board. Here, in an environment known for country music celebration and not cerebral pursuits, sat the 2,400 combatants in the National Elementary K-6 Chess Championship.

This was not a competition for the faint of heart: two games on Friday at 1 and 7, three on Saturday at 9, 2, and 7, and two on Sunday at 9 and 2, followed by an awards ceremony Sunday evening at the Grand Ole Opry for which kids put on Country and Western garb. (Their chess-playing uniforms were T-shirts with slogans like "Kick Some Brain" or "Play chess, Maryland style," which featured a drawing of crabs holding chess pieces in their pincers.)

On Friday afternoon Robert Singletary from Raleigh, N.C., chief director of the tournament, opened the competition by stating, "The round is officially begun. Start your clocks." Then came silence, except for the hum of the giant air conditioners and the sound of small palms hitting the buttons on chess clocks. (In these competitions, players have 60 minutes to make their first 25 moves.) Players aren't allowed to speak to each other during games, so trash talking is out.

Parents are also out: They wait in adjoining rooms for the two hours or so that games typically take, hoping their kids will burst in with expressions of joy rather than dejection. Mr. Singletary said that "98 percent of the parents are great," but he recalled one mom who made her son sleep in the bathtub when he lost. Veteran tournament director Harry Sabine, who directed the tournament portrayed in the good movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, said, "I've seen parents berate kids when they lose. Grab the kids and shake them."

The two directors also recalled some parents getting into fights with each other while better-mannered children, stunned or bemused, looked on. They agreed that the worst parents are those who "don't play chess. They don't understand how you can make a dumb move." To decrease the number of dumb moves, dozens of kids between official matches played games in the hotel corridors, lying on their stomachs and resting on their elbows beside their vinyl boards.

Other children, though, tossed around a football or played video games, and that's the image the United States Chess Federation is trying to project as the number of participants in the national championships increases by 100 or more each year. (Mr. Singletary recalls the 1985 championship in Charlotte, where he was delighted that the number of entrants for the first time topped the 500 mark-by 1.) The children I spoke with seemed semi-nerdy but also all-boy (girls are a distinct minority), delighting in smashing their opponents.

Visiting the tournament reminded me of my days as a young chess player. (After I failed to make my sixth-grade baseball squad, chess became my only team sport.) It also reminded me that the United States is still a land of opportunity: Just as major league baseball was refreshed by the introduction of black and Hispanic players a generation ago, so schoolboy chess has been helped by the realization of some inner-city leaders that chess is a great way to build minds and refine aggression.

The team winner in this month's championships was Oakhaven Elementary in Memphis, a school at which 95 percent of the students are poor enough to be eligible for government-subsidized lunches. Jeff Bulington, the team's chess coach and school math teacher, told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, "This is like finding out that a skiing team from Bolivia just won the Olympic gold medal." Principal Melanie Suriani added, "They beat some of the wealthiest children in the nation," and in doing so squashed "a typical stereotype" regarding what poor kids can do.

The Oakhaven chess team basked in cheers at a school rally where classmates held signs such as "Oakhaven Rocks!" As does America. Sin abounds, but we should be thankful for God's common grace.