Three years ago, they didn't know a pawn from a rook.
"This is a chessboard," Daniel Katz recalled saying to his pupils on the first day of class, in 2005, at Cross Country Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore.
Since then, the kids, most of them recruited for the embryonic chess club because of their math skills, have taken on established challengers from across the country, won trophies and sometimes astonished even their teacher. A few have beaten private-school students who have one-on-one tutorials in the game.
Most importantly, they've stayed out of trouble.
"I've seen them learn, and I've seen them grow, to go from knowing nothing to competing," Katz said on a recent afternoon, as his 10 charges squared off in pairs during a sometimes raucous practice session for their first appearance at a national tournament in Pittsburgh.
"I like winning," said a gum-chewing Devon Campbell, 10, a player with a cache of chess trophies at home. "Before a match, I feel nervous and my hands shake, and it gives me a fuzzy feeling. But once I start playing, I memorize the board and watch my opponent's moves, and the shakiness goes away. It's like a vampire in the night - all I see is the chessboard."
There are about 1,200 students playing chess in 60 Baltimore public schools, a fact unheralded amid systemwide violence, truancy and academic failure.
"We don't have a lot of success stories," said Steve Alpern, who directs the city schools' chess league. "There aren't too many things that distinguish this school system, but I would put this program against any elementary-school chess program in the states."
The Baltimore Kids Chess League started just four years ago in 20 schools, most of them elementary, and has seen almost explosive growth. The chess clubs, which got started with help from the Abell Foundation and the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, meet once or twice a week, usually after classes.
And yet some schools might not be able to continue the chess clubs next year because of a lack of funds. Next year for the first time, Alpern said, a "redistribution" of the system's money means that public schools will have to pay their own freight to participate in the league, a sum that amounts to $2,000 per school, covering equipment, curriculum, training, traveling to tournaments and the stipend paid to coaches. Some schools, he said, don't have the resources.
"We are trying to line up sponsors to adopt those schools and sponsor their chess club," Alpern said. "I am sure there will be a Baltimore Kids Chess League next year - the question is how many schools will participate. We have had many requests to expand the program to middle and high schools as the students who have started playing in elementary school move to the higher grades."
Matthew Riley, the principal at Cross Country for nine years, said the chess team "is demonstrating that they are athletes of the mind."
When his chess-playing students started winning, he had to go out and buy a trophy case. "We've got about 12 trophies in the case and there's no more room," Riley said. "Now I have to buy another one. We're talking about inner-city students competing against students from private as well as public schools. Every child may not be able to play basketball, lacrosse or soccer, but every child may be able to sit down and strategize and excel in playing chess."
Last year, players from Cross Country won the junior varsity division title in the state championships. This year in the same tournament, "We were within one point of winning the varsity division," said Katz, their coach.
On May 11 in Pittsburgh, the Cross Country team placed 18th out of 63 teams in the K-5 division of the National Elementary Chess Championships. Another Baltimore public school, Wolfe Street Academy, finished sixth out of 19 schools in the tournament's K-3 division. Wolfe Street was the only Maryland school to place in the top 10 in any division.
Cross Country's Joseph Grant, 13, finished 40th out of 406 competitors in Pittsburgh. Joseph, who wants to design video games for a living, said his father sometimes plays with him at home. "I started refreshing his memory, and he started to raise his level to mine," Joseph said. "The games got harder, but I'm the man. I'm trying to teach my mother, but she doesn't get it."
His mother, Robin Price, a surgical technician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said Joseph "reminds me what the moves are." The family received a glass chess set as a gift, and it lay on the coffee table as mere decoration until, she said, "we taught ourselves how to play."
Her son "definitely takes his time to process things before he jumps," Price said. "He's focused, and he's a thinker, and I think chess contributes to that."
Tomorrow, Joseph and his classmates will have another chance on a big stage, in the Citywide Chess Championships at the Johns Hopkins University. Their coach will, as ever, hover nervously in the background, no doubt attired in one of his trademark ties, decorated with - what else? - chess pieces.
Katz, a special-education teacher in Cross Country's middle school, began a chess program there years ago. It didn't last, but things are different now.
"That was a good move," he told Morgan Brown, 10, as she blocked off an escape route for Darius Williams, also 10, and then attacked. She was suddenly cradling four of his pieces.
"She's doing a pretty good job of being on the offensive," Katz said, peering over Morgan's shoulder. "She's daring him to take her queen. She feels she has the advantage right now. She's taunting him."
As she played, Morgan said distraction was always a danger.
"It's easy to focus, but then it's easy to get off track," she said. "Focusing pays off."
Before joining Katz's class three years ago, she said, "I didn't know there was such a thing as chess."
Ultimately, Morgan's fortunes in the game changed, and it ended in a draw.
"Chess is more than win-lose," said Gregory Martin, Cross Country's assistant principal and a chess coach. "It's about building character. There's a certain etiquette that we try to get the kids to adhere to."
He mentioned the custom of players before a match introducing themselves to each other - even if they are well acquainted - and shaking hands. As he spoke, two of the students began chasing each other around a table and another fell off his chair, all three yelling - proving, if nothing else, that they were still children.
"I'm seeing some behavior that you know we don't like," Martin admonished them, without raising his voice.
As the kids settled down, he went on: "I've watched kids, particularly girls, who had very little confidence build a huge amount of confidence. I've seen it over and over, academically and the way they carry themselves generally in life. The chess board is math, algebra, geometry and logical reasoning - it helps kids in all those areas. A good choice has a good consequence, and a bad choice has a bad consequence."
Katz agreed. "They've got to think three moves ahead, so that's critical thinking - action and reaction," he said. In an era when a huge premium is placed on winning at all costs, the chess students learn to accept defeat gracefully and to gain wisdom from mistakes.
"You see a move that might cost you a game," Katz said, "but you think, 'I'm going to try it next time against someone else.' "