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On Chess: The Scholastic Chess Tournament Experience

In 2019, students participate in the Turkey Tango Tournament, one of many scholastic chess tournaments held around St. Louis.
Crystal Fuller
St. Louis Chess Club
In 2019, students participate in the Turkey Tango Tournament, one of many scholastic chess tournaments held around St. Louis.

At 6:45 a.m. on the day of a scholastic chess tournament, the van is loaded with hundreds of chess clocks, thousands of chess pieces and large stacks of vinyl chess boards. The “chess van” drives to partner schools around the region to host tournaments for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. By 8:30 a.m., the excitement begins to pick up when families start arriving and signing in, ready to begin the competition.

A typical scholastic tournament is played over the course of an intense six hours, with more than 150 students playing about 400 chess games. Chess players select their moves from among countless variations and tactical calculations. Just in the opening series of moves, the number of possibilities explodes into the thousands. During all five rounds, all players combined can be expected to make 12,000 over-the-board moves. Fifteen top finishers are awarded the trophies, and in all, 39 trophies are given to the winners, best novices and the best-performing teams.

Many students know their way around the tournament hall and how to navigate the chaos. For neophytes, their first chess tournament is a learning experience. Much of the event is loosely coordinated by the tournament director. Guidance comes in the form of pairing charts, crosstables and team standings. Besides learning to read these charts, players need to manage their thinking time, use a chess clock and write chess notation for their games.

Toward the end of the day, everything hangs in the balance. During the final round, a few moves can decide the difference between first and fourth place – trophies or none. Games can last more than an hour in this round, and players work to the very last check. Emotions can often catch players off guard as they are deeply invested in the outcomes of their games.

Excitement culminates in an awards ceremony for individuals and teams. Players are recognized by their peers, parents and coaches. These tournaments offer a gateway into the world of chess for students across the area. It connects them to the culture of chess that is global in scope and rooted in a long history.

This summer, however, the St. Louis Chess Club temporarily moved these monthly in-person tournaments online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The tournament is hosted on Lichess.org, and players have had fun playing games against new students from around the world rather than from just around the St. Louis area. In place of trophies, top finishers are now awarded lessons with grandmasters. These free online events give new players a way to practice for their first tournament and be able to better acquaint themselves with the unique atmosphere of chess, whether it is in person or online, the game of chess continues to thrive.

If you would like to participate in the next Scholastic Chess event, Dog Days Duels on Aug. 15, please sign up at http://www.saintlouischessclub.org or contact scholastics@saintlouischessclub.org for more information.

Richard Pointer is scholastic manager and senior tournament director at the St. Louis Chess Club.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.