Sam Macer was the kind of kid who, to put it kindly, didn't care to conform.
"I don't know how many middle schools he's been kicked out of," said Belinda Chance, the art teacher and chess coach at West Baltimore's Dickey Hill Elementary/Middle School, to which Sam, surly and argumentative, was admitted last year. "He was very angry. He yelled at teachers. He's yelled at me before."
When Sam, now 13, asked to join Chance's chess club, she almost didn't let him in. But she reconsidered.
"I thought, 'Maybe this will be the thing that will help,' " Chance said yesterday at the Citywide Chess Championships at the Johns Hopkins University, where Sam, his hands dancing across the checkered board, subjected one of his opponents to a 11/2-minute drubbing.
In Sam's case, chess made all the difference.
"It calmed me down," he said during a break between matches. "It got better when I really started to know how to play. I look at chess as life: There's different ways you can move in life. Chess helps me decide, when a situation comes up, the move I want to make."
Yesterday, Sam shrugged off his losses in two other matches, a sign that, as even he acknowledged, he is maturing as both a player and a young man.
At the tournament, some 235 elementary and middle-school students - all from Baltimore public schools - battled for chess supremacy in Johns Hopkins University's Glass Pavilion, a space that went from a fitful silence during matches to an eruption of noise at the end of each round.
"It gives them a chance to work on their giftedness," said Bettie J. Williams, an instructional support teacher at Rosemont Elementary/Middle School, which entered five students - three of them first-graders - in the tournament for the first time.
For many of the students, it was also the first time they had set foot on the university's Homewood campus, a grand and unsullied place far removed from the battered neighborhoods some of them call home.
"They were really amazed at how beautiful it was here," said David Utara, a fourth-grade teacher and the chess coach at Mary E. Rodman Elementary School. "They're learning that if you work really hard you can come to a place like this. They normally don't see much of the city - they rarely get off their block."
Bearing in mind that students this young sometimes need to be reminded about pesky things like decorum, the tournament's master of ceremonies, Steve Alpern, who directs the city schools' chess program, urged them before the first 35-minute round to display good sportsmanship, shake hands with opponents, and behave civilly in both victory and defeat. (Alpern said later that his position is being eliminated under a proposed restructuring of the school system's finances.)
Just before play began, Alpern said, "I want everybody to take a real big breath." The cavernous room hushed and, after a moment, the only sound heard was the soft clicking of chess pieces knocking each other off.
Bernard Thomas, a 10-year-old player from Pimlico Elementary/Middle School whose opponent unassailably protected his knight, was an early victim. "He beat me," Bernard said in a whisper, apparently a bit stunned at the speed of his fall.
His 12-year-old sister, Desire Thomas, did better. She finished off her adversary with a series of moves that prevented his king's escape from the back rank with deft positioning of two rooks.
"She's phenomenal," said Desire's coach, Lee Rutledge, who normally teaches sixth-grade English at Pimlico. The middle school team, he said, won the Maryland girls' championship this year and last with Desire's help, and last year she was the individual winner in that tournament's novice division.
"The kids who play chess get a lot of their identity from being good at something that's hard," Rutledge said. "It gives them a lot of confidence with other things they take on in the classroom."
Middle School Champions
Will Cameron, Roland Park Elementary/Middle
Aubrey Minor, Lemmel Middle
Alex Brooks, Dickey Hill Elementary/Middle
Elementary Advanced Champions
Jordan Best and Ronald Best, Dr. Rayner Brown Elementary School
Martin Orellana, Wolfe Street Academy
Darwin Lopez, Graceland Park Elementary School
Sydnee Campbell, Devon Campbell and Karon Carter, Cross Country Elementary/Middle School