Karon Carter chewed his left index finger as he studied the chess board and then methodically advanced his knight in the direction of his opponent's queen. Two moves later, the 12-year-old said, "Check." A few minutes after that, the victorious youth was shaking his opponent's hand.
Until four years ago, Karon had never played the game that he now has come to love. This weekend, he joined a contingent of Baltimore City school students at the National K-12 Chess Championships and the National Girls Chess Championships in Columbus, Ohio, where Baltimore teams excelled. Karon's team tied for fourth in their division, which was the first top-10 team placement for Baltimore City.
A team from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute won the K-12 unrated division of the tournament, becoming Baltimore's first division winner at the national tournament. In addition, four Baltimore students took top-10 individual honors, which was also a first.
"I like it because it is challenging," Karon said while practicing with other members of the chess team at Cross Country School in North Baltimore.
The Baltimore Kids Chess League, which was formed in 2004 as an after-school chess program, provides coaches and equipment at 60 schools throughout the city. The program, which works in conjunction with the Abell Foundation, is among the few of its size in the country that encompass students from elementary through high school. More than 1,000 students participate.
In addition to weekly practices at school, students also have the opportunity to compete in tournaments at the city, state and national level.
"When we support our kids in Baltimore, they can do this kind of thing," said Steve Alpern, a retired city school employee who now works as commissioner of the league. "It really looks good for Baltimore."
Last month, Karon's Cross Country Elementary/Middle School team placed first in the varsity division of the 2010 Maryland Scholastic Chess Championships in Hagerstown. It was the first time that a Baltimore City school won the state title at the varsity level. A team from Pimlico Elementary placed second in the same division. Both teams are competing at the national tournament.
While the accolades are great, the more important things are having fun, expanding the students' horizons and teaching valuable life lessons, according to Daniel Katz, the chess coach at Cross Country.
"It teaches them to think first," said Katz, who teaches special education at the school. "That is an important lesson in life — give it thought and analyze."
Khristopher Johnson, a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Cross Country, has been playing since third grade, when his older sister encouraged him to play.
"It's very academic," Khristopher said. "It's preparing me for the future."
Khristopher loves the travel and interaction associated with being on the team.
"We get to go to different places each year," he said. "We get to meet different people from around the world."
Ta'es Bailey, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Cross Country, plans to join the chess team at Polytechnic Institute, where he was recently accepted. The school has one of the better chess teams in the city.
"A number of them want to go to Poly for the academics and for chess," Katz said.
Officials from the Baltimore Kids Chess League anecdotally said that members of the program improve their academic performance. They are currently analyzing data to show to what extent.
Ta'es has been on the honor roll each year since he joined the chess team.
"It's been helping me out ever since," he said with a laugh. "It's helped me with my mental skills."
The national tournament featured more than 1,200 students from 34 states. Prior to the contingent leaving, Katz knew the competition would be fierce, but he thought his students were ready.
"They are a lot more excited than they are showing," Katz said while watching his team practice in the school's library during a recent resource period. "Some of these students have never been out of the state of Maryland. It's a great opportunity."
At last year's tournament, Joseph Grant, a 13-year-old seventh-grader, place 35th out of 406 competitors.
"It felt good to know I could place 35th out of that many players," he said.
Joseph started playing five years ago. He was a fast study, taking the top prize in the first citywide tournament he entered.
"I am really into it," he said. "I love chess. I study it. I play it."
The chess team has changed the way students in the school view the game. Chess team members are not viewed as the stereotypical social outcasts, according to Katz.
"I think the children in the school really admire the kids in the chess club," Katz said. "They only have positive things to say."
The chess club members are quick to say that they are "famous" in the school.
"The chess team is the pride of our school," said Khristopher, who pointed to the row of trophies atop a bookshelf in the library. There are close to 100 chess tournament trophies displayed throughout the school. "Our basketball team hasn't won a championship since 2005."