Ten-year-old Brendan D'Andrea was understandably nonchalant after winning his first-round chess match at the Maryland Chess Assocition's third annual David W. McDuffie Memorial Scholastic Chess Tournament on March 7.
After all, the Mount Washington School fifth-grader had gone undefeated in all five rounds of his previous tournament, sponsored late last year by the association, and his U.S. Chess Federation rating jumped from 332 to 625.
"That's very rare," said Christina Heffner, of Hampden, who is Brendan's coach at the public K-8 school and a teacher at Greenspring Montessori School. "He's good, and he's a very teachable player."
Fame can be fleeting in the children's chess world, where there's always another tournament on the horizon, including the association-sponsored Maryland High School & Middle School Chess Championship, to be held March 28-29 at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School.
But there was no mistaking Brendan's nonchalance for a lack of pride.For now, at least, "Everybody knows me," he said."That's pretty cool."
Wearing his Mount Washington Checkmaters team T-shirt, Brendan was one of 253 public school students who came from around Maryland and as far away as Delaware to the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute's cafeteria for the McDuffie tournament, sponsored by Cheryl McDuffie of Roland Park in honor of her brother, the late chess expert, coach and teacher David McDuffie.
There would have been more than 300 students if not for a big snowstorm two days earlier and other events competing for the students' attention, said tournament organizer Maryland Chess Association Scholastic Director John Rockefeller, also of Roland Park, who organized the tournament.
In fact, Brendan himself had to break away from the tournament for awhile, because he had to pose for photos with his baseball team for photos for the upcoming season of the Roland Park Baseball Leagues.
"I'm double-booked today," he said, but sounded a little like The Terminator, as he declared, "I'm coming back."
North Baltimore is at the epicenter of scholastic chess tournaments, many of them held at Poly and at Roland Park and attended by students from around the state, many of them members of the extracurricular chess teams at their schools.
"We built the interest," said Steve Alpern, a retired Baltimore public school system teacher and administrator. Alpern is the longtime commissioner of the 11-year-old, nonprofit Baltimore Kids Chess League, which teaches chess as a way to foster self-control, concentration and analytical skills necessary for academic achievement.
About 100 students at the McDuffie tournament were members of teams in the league, which has about 1,000 students from 42 teams, each with its own coach.
"We've had two teams win (U.S. Chess Federation) national championships in the past five years," Alpern said.
One of those teams was Roland Park Elementary/Middle's, which won a national title in the division for students with ratings of under 1,000.
One of the teams Roland Park beat was from Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn, N.Y., which was the subject of the award-winning documentary "Brooklyn Castle."
Also, one of the Roland Park Elementary/Middle School team members, Kamran Guchemand, won second place individually in the nationals in Atlanta.
"I didn't expect that," said Kamran Guchemand, now a seventh-grader in Roland Park's advanced Ingenuity program. "It felt really good."
On March 7, Kamran was back for more glory at the McDuffie tournament, and was already talking with teammate and classmate Ian Stadelmaier about carpooling to this year's nationals in April in Columbus, Ohio.
"I'm going to try to get first place this time," Kamran said.
Both students lost their second-round matches at Poly.
"I need to study more tactics," said Ian, who fell to fourth grader Ryan Luo of Olive B. Loss Elementary School in Bear, Del.
Kamran lost to Byron Wu, a fourth-grader at Lakewood Elementary in Rockville, but said afterward that in preparation for the nationals, he was trying out a new offense that backfired.
"I'm not really good at it, so I knew it was a risk," Kamran said. "It's practice."
"It's a testing ground," said his father, John Guchemand, one of many parents who came with their children. Most were shooed into a separate waiting area, to avoid any perception that they might be kibbitzing, Rockefeller said.
Teaching life skills
"You know, I don't even play," said Cheryl McDuffie, 57, a Johns Hopkins University fundraiser.
Still, she sponsors the tournament to honor her brother, who she said had a bad heart valve when he died at 52 in 2012.
"It's my way of keeping his memory alive," she said.
But McDuffie said she likes the scholastic benefits of the game for young people.
"It really hones your thinking skills," she said.
It also teaches strategy — "when to retreat, when to charge, stealth," McDuffie said. "I see that not being developed in the schools these days."
"Chess is good for kids," said Alpern, the league commissioner. "It's not just because it teaches thinking, but it teaches discipline. That's one of the things we have the most difficulty in, in schools, is discipline."
At a chess board, "You're in charge of those 64 squares," Alpern said. "If you move before you think, you're going to lose."
That, as much as anything, is what drives parents to instill and encourage their children's chess aspirations.
Jayant Thakre, a product line manager for Cisco Systems, moved to Ellicott City from Bangladore, India, about three months ago, and was at the McDuffie tournament with his son, Parth, 10, in tow.
"He likes to play," Thakre said of his son, now a fifth-grader at Northfield Elementary. "He had some coaching in India."
"Our mission is about joyful engagement in learning," said Lisa Kane, of Roland Park, outreach and partnerships coordinator for the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School in Greenmount West. The Montessori school has a chess club as well as a chess team and took 13 students to >the McDuffie tournament, including Kane's son, Joshua Braverman, a third-grader at the school.
"Kids are challenged to think critically and to learn from each other," Kane said. "It's the kind of teaching and learning that I think should be more prevalent in the schools. I feel very lucky to be a part of it."
That message is getting through to students like Owen Pereira, of Mount Washington, a fifth-grader at the Montessori school.
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When asked why he wanted to spend Saturday in school, Owen said, "I have a chess tournament. Chess is very good for your mental state."<
For most students at the tournament, however, chess is just plain fun.
Ken Porah, the coach of Poly's chess team, said its is purely extracurricular and the students get no class credit for participating.
And yet, he said, "I probably have 10 to 15 kids there every day from 3:15 to 5 p.m. I have to run them out of school."
In one of the day's wildest matches, Parth Thakre, the boy from India, and Kamran'sbrother, Alan, 10, fought to a draw, by which time they were down to their kings.
Alan, a fifth-grader at the Mount Washington School and already a veteran of chess tournaments, said he came to Poly for one overriding reason.
"I want to try to win a chess trophy," he said. "I've won, like, five or six."