Babes in Chess Land

by E. "Doc" Smith on June 7, 2004

As my final chess classes came to a close, I was reminded of the joy my students had brought me this year. My best student, two time tournament champion Michael Lin of St. Anne, with his remarkable memory and determination, kids like Sam Bekker, B.J. Fong, Sam Jaffe, Sho Kolko, Julia Ostromogilskaya, Jack Ryan, Michael Kostukovsky, Ryan Grant and Devin Thatcher of Argonne Elementary, winning the overall School Championship trophy, Gabriel Bonilla of West Portal and his discovery and love of the Mexican Grandmaster of the 1920’s, Carlos Torre, and how could I forget Gabriel Equitz, also of West Portal, who after a loss, asked if he was going to receive a “constellation prize”, and the identical twins Doron and Dominick Chen who simultaneously checkmated two different opponents with virtually the same position!

My classes at Creative Arts in Potrero, were also a study in contrasts with the multi-colored hair of the Kriswold brothers, Devin and Sirague, the amazing little Isabella, who could hold her own against the fifth graders, and the class “monster”, Z’ev Jenerik, who would play against the entire class blindfolded. The year was also not without controversy. A fight between two kids over a loss, resulted in a broken nose for one, expulsion for the other. The flooding of a boy’s lavatory during a tournament by two of my most exasperating cut-ups, (they were actually two of my better students), and of course, the inevitable tears after a loss.

Despite the occasional over-crowding of classes, lack of supplies, and the over-zealous parent, the kids were remarkably resilient. They were becoming crafty indeed, learning all the things one would expect… and more. Yes, a few learned how to manipulate the circumstances they were in to their advantage, and not all with honesty. A constant tug of war over the popular card games like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon added to my tasks. I found for example that by substituting chess pieces for cartoon characters like “Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles” from the “Powerpuff Girls” for the White Queen, “Professor Utonium” for the White King, and “Mojo Jojo” for the Black King, made it easier to teach those basic checkmates to my younger kids!

Jesse Dioquino, coordinator for the after school program Academic Chess, more than had his hands full. A parent himself, Dioquino brought a true sense of joy and enthusiasm to his job. Incredible considering that he runs the organization’s San Francisco programs virtually single-handed, dealing with parents, teachers, principals and a founder who exhibits all the earmarks of a “charismatic visionary leader, that threatens to destroy his non-profit organization with micro-management”. Dioquino has even tried to bring after-school chess to the Bayview/Hunter’s Point/Excelsior areas of San Francisco, something not seen before now.

The kids continued to astound me with how they used chess to cope with life. A child whose parent was diagnosed with cancer, showed remarkable poise and maturity in his games. Another child was in therapy for depression, and for him, chess was a safe retreat. Once, during a tournament, the founder of Academic Chess, Eric Hicks lamented that these kids weren’t very strong. He wanted desperately that his kids become real “chess monsters”. As passionately as he feels about his students, he misses the point. These games and programs aren’t about wins and losses. They’re about learning how we treat one another in life, about taking responsibility, about making a plan, executing that plan, and living and learning from the consequences, and hopefully, retaining the joy of that discovery.

That realization, is what is most important. As the late World Champion of the 1900’s, Emanuel Lasker once said, “On the chessboard lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite.”

These kids may yet surprise us all. Let’s hope we teach them the right lessons.

White E. “Doc” Smith
Black Eric Hicks
San Francisco 2003
London System

1. d4 d5
2. Nf3 Nf6
3. Bf4 e6
4. e3 Bd6
5. Bg3 c5
6. c3 O-O
7. Bd3 c4
8. Bc2 Nc6
9. Nbd2 Qb6
10. Ne5 Bxe5
11. dxe5 Nd7
12. Nf3 Qxb2
13. O-O Qxc3
14. Rc1 Qa3
15. Bxh7+ Kxh7
16. Ng5+ Kg8
17. Qh5 Rd8
18. Qxf7+ .Kh8
19. Qh5+ Kg8
20. Qh7+ Kf8
21. Qh8+ Ke7
22. Qxg7+ Ke8
23. Qf7# Checkmate

E. “Doc” Smith is a former Rhode Island Amateur Champion, and has won divisional titles in the U.S. Amateur Team Championships for Brown University as well as the Rhode Island Chess League Championships. He has also taught chess to kids in S.F. schools, where he has recently directed several successful citywide tournaments.

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