Monday, March 31, 2008

Julio Ties for First in US Open Qualifier

Julio poses with North Beach students Chady & Ariel who recently participated in a MICA scholastic tournament.

At the Frank Berry U.S. Championship Qualifier Open, five players tied for first with 5.5 points each: GM Julio Beccera, GM Alex Yermolinsky, GM Jesse Kraai, GM John Fedorowicz, and IM Dean Ippolito. Each of them won $1000. All have qualified for the Frank K. Berry U.S. Chess Championship May 13-21st. Becerra beat IM Vinay Bhat in the last round to earn the tie. IM Blas Lugo drew in the last round to win 4.5/7. See games below. Other Floridians participating were child prodigy FM Ray Robson and Jeffrey Haskell.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

GM Alexandra Kosteniuk Visits Miami Beach High

Students Max Cufari, Ariela Zuniga, Alexandra, teacher Ben Silva

As part of the "Chess Masters Tour", GM Alexandra Kosteniuk visited Miami Beach Senior High's chess elective class taught by math teacher Ben Silva. The "Chess Masters Tour" involves titled players visiting 12 middle and high schools offering chess as an elective in the M-DCPS system. The "Chess Masters Tour" is organized by District Chess Coordinator Andy Ramos of the Chess Education Program. Chess experts expected to participate are GM Renier Gonzalez, GM Julio Becerra, GM Gilardo Garcia, IM Blas Lugo, IM Alejandro Moreno, FM Marcel Martinez and FM Charles Galofre. GM Gonzalez visited Howard D. McMillan Middle and IM Lugo visited Shenandoah Middle recently and presented lectures and analysis. M-DCPS has over two-hundred and thirty chess programs including AEP Chess, Title I, chess elective classes, and clubs.

Alexandra analyzed a game she played against IM Andreas Huss in Switzerland in 2003. The game featured the Queen's Indian Defence. White usually develops the King's Knight to support the d4 pawn to avoid the Nimzo-Indian. Kosteniuk (Black) played its sister defence the Queen's Indian in response, planning to fianchetto her Queen's Bishop to control and occupy e4. She also examined variations played by Victor Korchnoi vs. Vladmir Simagin in 1960 and Kiril Georgiev vs. Alexander Grischuk in Crete last year at the European Championships for white after 9.Bd3 . To emphasize how much GMs prepare for their opponents, she states incredibly that 20. ......Be4 was her only original move in the game below! The students engaged her with great questions and ideas which she skillfully corroborated or refuted. She advised them to learn basic positions, study great games, study challenging problems, and work hard on the end game. She gave away pamphlets and her books to the students.
Last year Alexandra played a simul and analyzed games with students at the Florida State Scholastic Chess tournament attended by 1200 players from throughout Florida. She gave away her signature computer to the top girl in each of the 12 sections as well as her book, "How I became a Grandmaster at 14". Thank you for your generosity and kindness. Her daughter Francesca Maria will turn 1 year old on April 22nd.

For a free chess video podcast hosted by Alexandra go to and improve your chess game.

[Event "Swiss Championship"][Site "Silvaplana (Switzerland)"][Date "2003.165.165"][Round "4"][White "Huss, A"][Black "Kosteniuk, Alexandra"][Result "0-1"]

1. d4 Nf6
2. c4 e6
3. Nf3 b6
4. Nc3 Bb4

5. Qc2 Bb7
6. a3 Bxc3+
7. Qxc3 d6
8. e3 O-O

9. Bd3 Nbd7
10. O-O Ne4
11. Qc2 f5
12. Nd2 Qh4
13. f3 Ng5

14. f4 Nh3+
15. gxh3 Rf6
16. Nf3 Rg6+
17. Kh1 Qxh3
18. Qe2 Nc5!!
19. Bxf5 exf5
20. Bd2 Be4
Black is better
White resigned because after...
21. dxc5 Rg3
22. Rf2 Rxf3
23. Rg2 Rg3
24. Rg1 dxc5

Black wins an exchange and gets a winning endgame 0-1

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Miami's GM Julio Becerra Ties for First at Foxwoods

Playing in the "world's largest casino" didn't tempt GM Julio Becerra to play much poker this past weekend where he tied for 1st place in the 10th annual Foxwoods Open at the Foxwoods Resort Casino & Hotel in Mashantucket, CT. The purse was a projected $100,000 and guaranteed $70,000 in prize money. Julio tied with GM Yury Shulman who beat GM Ivanov in a blitz armegeddon along with US Champ GM Alex Shabalov and IM Robert Hess who earned his first GM norm.

Becerra played his student, Eric Rodriguez, in the first round. He said, "Obviously, I know him very well which gave me a big advantage. It is always difficult to play a friend." Did you expect to do so well?," I always expect to win. I was very confident." Becerra's ELO rose 8 points inching him closer to the 2600 mark. He heads for Oklahoma which will hold a qualifier for the US Open ( ) which aims to select seven players for the U.S. Championship in May with a special seven-round Swiss, in Tulsa, March 28-30.

Julio says, " My goal is to win the US Open and represent the US in the Olympics." Biggest comp? "Shabalov, he plays to win."

Above is his game against GM Eugene Perelshteyn he played a Ruy Lopez variation in which he says "was well played" and after 19. Rc3... "I felt I had a clear advantage."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Carol City Middle Visits MICA

Teacher Wendy Wadley successfully applied for a $250 mini grant from the Education Fund . The Chess Education Program found her a matching grant. They have attended the World Chess Hall of Fame and on Monday visited IM Blas Lugo at Miami International Chess Academy on Calle Ocho.

Blaso's lesson focused on positions in the opening and typical mistakes. The Cuban International Master explained that moving the same piece more than once loses tempo and initiative. He also warned of moving the Queen too fast. He emphasized developing your pieces quickly. He suggested attacking the Queen if your opponent tries to be overly aggressive. He told the students to analyze positions carefully making sure to look for positional advantages. He demonstrated centralizing minor pieces like the Knight and Bishop to use in combinations. He asked students to explain their reasoning for making moves which helped develop their analytical skills.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Idaho Turns to Chess as Education Strategy

Published: March 20, 2008

Once a week, Deborah McCoy, a third-grade teacher in Donnelly, Idaho, unpacks chessboards and pieces and spends an hour teaching her 20 students how to play the game.
Mrs. McCoy said of the program: “They learn give and take in chess. There are courtesies that you follow.”
Mrs. McCoy does not do this because she is passionate about chess; she barely knew how to play before this school year. But she began teaching it as part of an unusual pilot program under way in more than 100 second- and third-grade classrooms across Idaho.

On Thursday, state officials will announce in Boise that the program will be extended in the fall to all second and third graders — making Idaho the first state to offer a statewide chess curriculum.

The state’s $1.5 billion education budget, passed two weeks ago, includes up to $60,000 to finance the instruction. Tom Luna, the state’s superintendent of education, said participation by teachers would be voluntary, but if reaction to the pilot program is any measure, interest will be great.

There are no studies showing that teaching chess has benefits for children, but there is anecdotal evidence, Mr. Luna said.

“One of the things that we hear is that too much of what we do is based on rote memorization,” Mr. Luna said. “The part I really like about this program is that kids are thinking ahead.”

Mrs. McCoy said she has been pleased with the results.

“So many kids spend their time plugged into video games, iPods, television and so they are more isolated,” she said. “They learn give and take in chess. There are courtesies that you follow. It has been really beneficial for them.”

Idaho has 40,000 second and third graders, and Mr. Luna estimated the instruction will cost about $200,000 to $250,000 a year, although it could run as much as $600,000 “if everybody jumped on it the first year,” he said. The money is expected to come from private financing and from reducing administrative expenses in the school system, though state officials said they had not yet identified where the savings would be made.

Idaho is using a curriculum called First Move, which was developed by America’s Foundation for Chess, a nonprofit, Seattle-based organization that promotes teaching chess in school. First Move is now taught to 25,000 students in 18 states, according to Wendi Fischer, the vice president of the foundation.
Rourke O’Brien, the foundation’s president, said the idea to introduce chess into Idaho’s school system arose out of a discussion between Erik Anderson, the foundation’s founder, and Roy Lewis Eiguren, a lawyer and lobbyist who lives in Idaho.

Mr. Anderson and Mr. Eiguren sit on the board of the Avista Corporation, an energy company based in neighboring Washington. After hearing about the benefits of teaching chess, Mr. Eiguren set up a dinner early last year and invited Mr. Luna, Karen McGee, an education-policy adviser to the governor, and three Republican state lawmakers — Representatives Eric Anderson (no relation to Erik Anderson) and Bob Nonini, and Senator John W. Goedde.

The dinner participants agreed to create the pilot program, and Mr. Nonini volunteered to provide $600 of his own money to pay for one of the classrooms in his district for a year, Mr. O’Brien said. The rest of the cost, about $60,000, was paid by the state.

First Move differs from some other chess-in-school programs in that it is taught by classroom teachers and is intended as a curriculum enhancement for second and third graders. It incorporates elements of math, history and vocabulary.

Teachers who wish to use it do not need to know chess. They are trained at seminars over a day or two before the school year starts, and are provided with an instructional DVD, a DVD player, chess sets, boards, online resources and a manual. Every other week, an experienced player is available to answer questions.

Mrs. McCoy said her town was so remote — Donnelly is about a two-hour drive from Boise — that the expert player, Mark Morales, was available only online, but she had found that was adequate. She said it was good for her students to be exposed to a sophisticated game like chess.

“Donnelly is approximately 250 people,” she said. “We are right smack dab in the mountains. Most of our kids live on ranches or in small towns.”

Some of the benefits of the program, Mrs. McCoy said, came in unexpected areas.

“I actually have one student who is originally from Russia and two Hispanic students who have limited English skills, and chess kind of leveled the playing field, and it kind of helped their self-esteem issues,” she said.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Friday, March 21, 2008

IM Blas Lugo Visits Shenandoah

IM Blas Lugo visited Shenandoah Middle School on Thursday March 20 as part of the Chess Education Program's "Master Tour" of chess elective classes. Lugo who runs Miami International Chess Academy ( )has been a fixture on the Florida chess scene since 1994. His chess club has produced a who's who list of chess champions from Miami. Some of the best players in Florida play at his club. He recently added an after school program for neighboring schools. Children get help with homework and study/play chess. There is financial aid available for those who qualify. He will also offer a spring break camp as well as a summer camp. The club also hosts tournaments including Sundays and scholastic tournaments at Rockwood Middle.
IM Lugo's lesson featured attacking squares F2 & F7. He demonstrated various common positions in which the queen is sacrificed for checkmate or won material. He explained how difficult it is for scholastic players to conceive sacrificing the most powerful piece on the board. Development of the knights and bishop were critical in these combinations. The most important part of the lesson was demonstrating the attacks thus making the students realize the potential for an advantage and initiative by giving up the Queen. When they see the position again they will analyze more closely.
He also analyzed a game he won against current US Champion Alexander Shabalov in 1996 in Philadelphia in which similar positions were reinforced. One thing he said to me that stuck was that sometimes people have unrealistic expectations about chess lessons. There is no magic wand or class that turns you into an expert. These titled players have spent a significant amount of time to achieve their expertise. It is a constant effort for a long period of time.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Science, Math, Checkmate: 32 Chess Activities for Inquiry and Problem Solving

Max and Hiroko Warshauer

Department of Mathematics Texas State University-San Marcos

Science, Math, Checkmate is the second book by educator and chess expert Dr. Alexey Root that deftly weaves chess into the educational fabric of school mathematics and science. As in her first book, Children and Chess: A Guide for Educators, this book is a rich resource of activities educators can use to engage, enrich, and enhance student learning.
Teaching problem solving is one of the most challenging tasks for mathematics and science teachers. Chess provides an intriguing context for students to explore a variety of intellectually demanding problems while encouraging students to explain and justify their solutions. The 32 activities found in this book are designed to encourage students to experiment with strategies, visualize relationships of pieces, and reason through their moves and consequences.
Written as a resource book for teachers that links to national standards, each activity includes Objectives, Materials, and Procedures, and is designed to take students 30 to 45 minutes to complete. In addition, the activities are notated with grade appropriateness that ranges from grades 3 to 8 and sequenced according to the extent of students’ chess knowledge that is required. A chess test is included to assess the chess knowledge of students. The author shares with us numerous activities that were inspired by her children, which suggests a very student-focused approach to activities.
It is through our children that we first met Dr. Root. Over 15 years ago, Dr. Root offered chess lessons to children in Austin, Texas. Three of our four children were able to take lessons with Alexey, as they fondly called her, who instilled in them a great love for the game. As a mathematician and a mathematics educator we were fortunate to have Alexey write an article on chess and mathematics in Math Reader magazine, which was published by Texas Mathworks at Texas State University- San Marcos. We have been impressed by how she has used chess as a platform for teaching students to think creatively about problems while making learning fun and engaging. Teachers will find these activities to be a wonderful resource that they can use in their classrooms to stimulate excitement and curiosity about problem solving. At the same time, students will develop a foundation in chess that can be a lifelong source of fun and enjoyment that can be shared between people of all ages.

Monday, March 17, 2008

2008 Miami-Dade College Chess Tournament

Mater Academy Charter
Miami Beach Senior Math/Chess Teacher Ben Silva observes M-DC Tournament

Chief TD Gil Luna analyzes game with Coral Park's Christine Martin

M-DC organizer Rene Garcia and Mater Academy coach Jorge Leon

M-DC organizer Christine Ferrer & Miami Senior Math/Chess Teacher Julio Aguilar

As soon as I get results...I will post them.

Karel Gonzalez won overall (Mater Academy)

Monday, March 10, 2008

GM Renier Gonzalez Visits McMillan Middle

Call it the Grandmaster Tour. I have invited four local GMs to visit schools that offer chess as an elective and they have all agreed including GM Renier Gonzalez, GM Julio Becerra, GM Alexandra Kosteniuk, and GM Gilardo Garcia. We started with McMillan Middle on Friday.
GM Renier Gonzalez chose to analyze a game (34 moves) from the National Open in Las Vegas in 2005. It was one of his best tournaments ever, he beat 2 GMs and drew another one, finishing tied for 5th place with 4.5 out of 6. He played black against GM Ildar Ibragimov (FIDE 2611) and used the modern defence (fianchetto bishop along the A-H diagonal): Averbakh variation (A42). His lecture focused on attacking the king in the center, being able to adjust to different styles, and the danger of not castling early. Renier also spoke of how GMs prepare for each others games by studying databases of their opponents games. Ibragimov underestimated the lower rated Gonzalez (FIDE 2483) and paid for it.
Renier said he was impressed with the knowledge of the McMillan students and spoke highly of their chess teacher Marcos Diez. The group looked very interested in improving their chess level which is good. He noticed a lack of openings knowledge which he said will come with experience. Mr. Diez fared very well at the Miami Open in September scoring 5/7 (1460P). What do you think of the GM Tour? "I think it is a great idea since chess tends to be an autodidactic activity. It is really hard to have a lot of "one on one" lessons which is the best way to improve your chess. One of the best ways to show your students how to make better use of their time is by bringing experienced players who had to train a long time in order to be able to play at a high level. They can also offer some guidance to those instructors that have a hard time teaching high-level classes, they may have the pedagogy but lack chess experience. Another interesting thing is to offer simuls or lectures with those experienced chess players in tournaments and seminars, not only for the students but also for the instructors. Hopefully, I have not only taught them some things but also inspired and motivated them." How should I or the chess elective teacher decide what to cover or teach during a GM or titled player's visit? "The the best thing is to find what the group is having more problems with, normally endgames and positional ideas, and work on them slowly since it takes a lot of time to improve the positional understanding of the students" he said.

[Event "National Open"][Site "Las Vegas USA"][Date "2005.06.10"][EventDate "2005.06.10"][Round "2"][Result "0-1"][White "Ildar Ibragimov"][Black "Renier Gonzalez"][ECO "A42"][WhiteElo "2611"][BlackElo "2483"][PlyCount "68"]
1. c4 g6 2. d4 Bg7 3. Nc3 d6 4. e4 e5 5. Nf3 exd4 6. Nxd4 Nc67. Be3 Nge7 8. Be2 O-O 9. Qd2 f5 10. Nxc6 bxc6 11. c5 fxe412. cxd6 cxd6 13. Nxe4 Nf5 14. Bf4 Re8 15. Bf3 Rxe4+ 16. Bxe4Qe8 17. f3 d5 18. O-O-O dxe4 19. Rhe1 e3 20. Bxe3 Qf8 21. g4Nxe3 22. Qxe3 Rb8 23. Rd2 c5 24. h4 Bb7 25. f4 Bd4 26. Qe6+Qf7 27. Qd6 Rf8 28. Re7 Qc4+ 29. Kb1 Bd5 30. b3 Qf1+ 31. Kc2Qf3 32. Rxd4 cxd4 33. Kb2 Qc3+ 34. Kb1 Be4+ 0-1

Friday, March 7, 2008

TCA Chess in Education Workshop

TCA Chess in Education workshop was held March 8, 2008, 1-5 p.m. (Houston), co-organized by UTD's Dr. Alexey Root and Luis Salinas. The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB), Texas Tech University (TTU), and The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) are the higher education leaders for chess in education in Texas. With this workshop, Texas builds its reputation as the leading state for chess in education. UTB, TTU, and UTD are joint workshop sponsors, along with the Texas Chess Association (TCA).

Scholastic chess is booming in Brownsville, Texas, and the surrounding communities. Of the 50 schools in the Brownsville Independent School District, at least 35 have active chess programs. Six different Brownsville ISD schools have won national chess championships, led by Dr. Americo Paredes Elementary’s seven national titles. Two elementary school students have tied for individual national championships, and many others have finished in the top five. The chess success of our local schools got the attention of Dr. Juliet Garcia, President of The University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College, who formed a chess program at UTB/TSC so that area students would have the opportunity to earn scholarships and compete in chess at the university level. The Brownsville Independent School District has gotten onboard, and now allocates about $400,000 per year to their chess program. Chess has become a source of pride to BISD, UTB/TSC, and our community, and is now part of our identity. How did all of this come about? How can these results be duplicated elsewhere? Are there other successful models in other areas? How does the future look? These questions and more face M-DCPS.

South Miami Heights Making Moves

The South Miami Heights chess club meets a few times a week from 7:15 am to 8:15 am and on Wednesday afternoons. I was there yesterday morning and teacher Shari Sussman had the coffee brewing. She has high hopes for her students as they get ready for their Region V & VI tournament scheduled for May 10, at Booker T. Washington Senior.
The students asked me questions about en passant, how many pawns to promote, and the difference between the "touch move" rule and adjusting a piece. Based on their questions, I reviewed checkmate with a King and a Rook as well as checkmate with two Rooks. I explained that the problem with overpromoting is that you run the risk of being stalemated. I also gave examples of tactics and focused on Knight forks. At this level, tactics are so important e.g., forks, pins, skewers, discovered attacks, batteries, combinations etc.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

WIM Dr. Alexey Root: 10 Questions

Alexey W. Root has a Ph.D. in education from UCLA. She was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion. A Senior Lecturer for the University of Texas at Dallas, she teaches online, college-credit, chess curriculum courses. Earlier in her career, she taught social studies and English in public secondary schools. Over the past 20 years (in elementary and secondary schools, after-school programs, recreation centers, camps, and private lessons), she has taught chess to over 1000 people. She is also the author of Science, Math, Checkmate: 32 Chess Activities for Inquiry and Problem Solving and Children and Chess: A Guide for Educators. Her books can be found on

1. How old were you when you learned how to play chess? Five years old.
2. At what age can children be taught chess? Children as young as four can learn, but an ideal age would be around eight or nine. By that age, many children can win or lose with some graciousness.
3. What do you like most about playing chess? During a game, I like to apply a pattern that I know (such as tactic) to improve my position.
4. Who is your favorite chess player? Any player on the UT-Dallas chess team!
5. What do you do when you are not playing chess? I work at the computer, either writing my books or grading students' work from my online courses, while I pet my rabbit, Abba (see attached photo). Abba is from a shelter; see for how to have a rabbit as a house pet.
6. Why is chess good for children to learn? Chess may encourage pattern recognition, problem solving, and sportsmanship. Playing chess allows children to interact with people of different ages and cultures.
7. How can chess facilitators become better chess teachers? Take my online chess courses, see
38 students are enrolled this semester, from beginners who are classroom teachers to grandmaster chess players. See this editorial .

8. What makes a good chess teacher? As with any subject, knowledge of content combined with knowledge of teaching methods and child development.
9. Why should chess be taught in schools? Chess in schools must address educational goals. My two books give lesson plans and activities that use chess as a tool to meet academic and humanistic objectives. One analogy is basketball teaching in P.E. During P.E. class, one might teach some basketball skills, such as shooting or dribbling, that have wide applicability. But if students want to compete at entire basketball games, they play in leagues after school. Similarly, chess in the classroom might feature some aspects of chess. Tournament chess play, in my opinion, should be an extracurricular option.
10. What stands out about your 1989 US Women’s Championship? What stands out is that I had a good attitude going into the tournament. I had just attended a Fourth of July celebration with my fiancĂ© and his family, and was happy about living in the U.S. and about my future as a wife. I married about two weeks after I won the U.S. Women's.

Monday, March 3, 2008

CBS 4 Features Chess Students

Inner-City Students Get All Their Pawns In Place
Jawan Strader MIAMI (CBS4) ―

Students at Edison Park Elementary in Miami have a good chess team, one that could go to the national competitions in Pennsylvania if they had the money. Their art teacher and chess coach are working with the community to see that all the pieces come together.

There isn't a day that 11-year-old Jacqueline Cordova doesn't walk into class telling Charles Webber, Edison Park Elementary's chess coach, a story of some crime that happened in her neighborhood.

"I'd rather be here in school and playing chess, because there's a lot of violence in my neighborhood," she said. "I tell my coach the stories all the time."

Cordova is a member of the Edison Park elementary Rooks chess team who won first place out of 24 teams with 21 points in the kindergarten through fifth- grade category in the 2007 Florida Scholastic Chess Championship.

"I practice all the time. We have a good coach. He encourages us to keep going even if we lose," Cordova said. "The game helps me in math."

The school had four students finish in the top twenty at a March competition held at the Sheraton Miami Mart Hotel. More than 1,500 children from all over Florida participated. In the tournament, students faced opponents with comparable ratings.

Chess is a novelty in the school. It was implemented by Joe Rubio, 43, two years ago. He came to Edison Park two years ago from Paul W. Bell Middle School. The school is located at 500 NW 67th St., an area prone to violence. It is termed a "zone" school, which is considered a low-performing school.

"I was in shock when I heard of the victory. We faced schools that have had the chess program for more than 15 years," Rubio said. "This shows that low-performing schools can be productive. I knew they would do well."

Rubio, who picked up the game 15 years ago as a hobby, said he taught it to "at-risk students" at his former school.

"I introduced the game. All of a sudden, I saw these kids who were hyper calm down," Rubio said. "They started to better in school and their way of thinking changed. My son is also playing it and I see progress in him, too."

To put the program together, Rubio overcame some hurdles. He didn't have any equipment nor a coach. He called Andy Ramos, District Chess Coordinator Division of Life Skills and Special Projects of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, who he had never spoken to. Ramos and his department supplied the team with some equipment. Also, the Title One program gave the team an introductory package that all new programs receive.

Soon after, he approached Webber, an art teacher at the school, and asked if he would be their coach.

At first, Webber had doubts. He told Rubio he didn't know how to play and that some of these kids couldn't even read at grade level.

However, Webber doesn't like to back down from challenges. "The challenge drove me to learn chess. I love challenges. It motivates me," Webber said. "I bought computer chess games and started to practice on my own and with the kids."

He picked 12 students with good academics and made them practice constantly. The team has since increased to 18.

In the first few tournaments, the Rooks were defeated badly. So Webber then took it upon himself to read journals and study the game further. He also solicited advice from other chess coaches in the county. "I wanted these guys to win. I felt bad when they lost, so I took it upon myself to teach them," he said.

(see video below)

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."