Check ... and ... Mate

Making the Right Moves
Posted on 06/11/2018
Image of Jennings CLC Chess Club(as reported by Theresa Cottom, Ohio.com/Akron Beacon Journal)

Belal Tazamir has devised one simple move to assess what he’s up against.

When the 12-year-old Jennings student plays chess, he uses his second turn to make his signature move with the queen. Then, he uses the player’s reactionary move to determine whether he’s playing a beginner, intermediate, advanced or expert.

Even when paired with an expert, though, Belal doesn’t worry.

“Now, if people say they’ve been playing 13, 14 years, I don’t get nervous,” Belal said. “In chess, it doesn’t matter. Everyone makes mistakes … in one mistake, you can lose all the game.”

Just three months ago, the most experience Belal had with chess was on a computer screen. But after joining the chess club at Jennings middle school, Belal has stepped up his game — so much so that he took home fourth place out of 47 students in the Middle School Reserve division of the 2018 Ohio Scholastic Chess Tournament last month.

The entire Jennings team of 10 students played well in the tournament, coming in first place out of seven teams. Belal was one of the top four players on the team, along with Hamzah Abdelrahim, 14, Dominick Crosier, 13, and Ranjan Rai, 14.

Many of the students learned the basics of chess from Jennings math teacher Joanne Cook when they joined the team — but the advanced knowledge many of them now have for the game, they learned from their dedication and practice.

“Every chance they get, they come to my room after school,” Cook said. “My students will tell you most of them can beat me.”

The chess club at Jennings was started by Cook and retired teacher Bruce Hukill a few years ago. They both said Jennings Principal Charles Jones had a big role, too — he played when he was a student, so he encouraged the team to start going to tournaments. He even stops in to play chess with the kids during their Thursday practices.

The Jennings team has been able to compete in a few other tournaments before, thanks to donations from teachers, advisers, Hukill, Cook and even Cook’s family members, but their most recent competition was their first overnight trip funded by the school board.

The team rode a bus down to Pickering bright and early for the two-day competition, and each student played four matches. The students agreed they were exhausted from the trip — but when Cook went to wake them up at 7 the next morning, they had already been up for an hour practicing for the day ahead.

“It’s their passion,” Hukill said.

Their passion was palpable the Thursday after school ended for the summer, when about 15 of the kids in the chess club gathered inside the North Hill Branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library, where they’re set to practice every week this summer.

During the practice, the kids buzzed about their tournament.

“It was really fun,” said Jayla Roberson, 15, who joined the chess club last year to meet new people after being home-schooled since kindergarten. “It was, like, the best thing I ever went to.”

“Winning the team trophy was very exciting. We were very proud of ourselves,” Dominick Crosier said. “I’ll always remember it because most people on the team are my friends.”

Aside from the competition, the companionship is what attracts and keeps many of the kids in the club. The diverse group of about 20 students, who represent five different countries, learn from one another about more than just the game of chess. For example, Belal, who is from Afghanistan, is trying to learn the Nepali language to communicate better with some of his teammates.

Many students in the club will be advancing to high school next year, so Hukill and Cook want to start going into elementary schools to expand and build their talent pool. But many of the kids going to high school want the club to expand in a different way — take it to the high schools, so they can continue playing on the team.

“It’s a good game,” Belal said. “If you play, then you always want to play.”

At their first gathering of the summer, the private room the students practiced in filled with chatter as some underdogs reveled in their first-time victories over more experienced students.

And 10 minutes after practice was scheduled to end, most kids were still buried in their games, showing no intent to leave anytime soon.

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