Monday, March 3, 2008

Two future champions: Karel and Emmanuel


They are the top four chess team in the state and top 20 in the nation -- and they have their eyes on the big prize.
"In no time they will be number one in the country," said the team's coach, Jorge Leon, who, three times a week, teaches 12 students how to plan the game, memorize plays, be patient, be intuitive and think.
Chess requires concentration and forces students to think logically about the possibilities of a play -- which is why, according to Leon, it increases the attention span of players, which, in turn, helps them focus and better their grades in all subjects, especially in math.
"After a year in the team, students start increasing their grades, and, if they had discipline problems, those disappear," said Leon, who has more than 30 years of experience as a chess master, teacher and researcher. He has written four books on teaching and playing chess. "The idea is not to make champions but to better their school performance," he said in a recent interview at the Hialeah Gardens school.
The idea may not be to make champions; this team is full of them. The Mater Academy chess team has given superior performances since Leon became coach in 2004. When he arrived, 18 students were in the after-school chess club, and the number has risen to more than 100. The team, which ranked 40th in the state, is now fourth.
The team's achievements have been a surprise for the school, said Principal Judith Marty, who promised to continue to encourage younger students to become members.
"I am very impressed. It is a good group of students, and they are all very serious about it," Marty said. "Chess is great because it creates critical thinking skills, so the more students who join the team the better for the school."
Since the start of the school year, the Mater Academy team has played in 10 Grand Prix tournaments organized by the Miami Chess Academy and has won first place eight times, along with one second place and one fourth. Next up is a national tournament in April in Georgia. The Mater Academy team will compete in the K-12 category against older students, but they are not worried. They already have about 20 trophies, along with more than 30 individual trophies as an indication of their skill.
"We have so many trophies we have to keep some in boxes," said one of the star players, Karel Gonzalez, 17, who learned to play chess from his father when he was 5 and he rarely loses a game.
Leon said Karel and teammate Emmanuel Iglesias, 14, have a good shot at becoming national champions. Both joined the team a year ago, and each has won seven first-place trophies in the Miami Grand Prix.
Emmanuel, who immigrated from Cuba a year ago, also knew how to play chess before joining the school club and had won championships in Cuba, including placing 14th in a national match-up.
"Chess helps me while I am taking a test," said Emmanuel. "I start thinking the way I would think when I am playing, like looking at possibilities or making a plan or just simply concentrating to remember what I studied. And it works great."
Team captain David Gonzalez, 16, a junior with a 4.0 grade point average, said he really learned to play chess when he joined the club.
"I thought I knew how to play, but it was not until I joined the team and took the classes that I figured how hard chess is. Our teacher has taught me a lot; he is a very wise man," said David, a club member since 2005.
"Chess opens up your mind to all kind of things," David said. "It helps you think outside the box and see the different possibilities to everything. You also learn to focus and concentrate -- plus, it teaches you to make a plan and then adapt your plan to the other player, which is great because when you start thinking like that in life you become more organized and perform better. I think it should be an elective in school; it would really help a lot of students."

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