By Rose L. Thayer
Killeen Daily Herald
When the 3:45 bell rings at Clear Creek Elementary School, releasing students from the classroom, more than 200 students will line the hallway twice a week ready for their extracurricular activity. But they are not there for the hip hop club, or the robotics club, or even for basketball.
They are all there to spend the next hour playing chess.
"We are by far the biggest club," said Noel Taylor, a fifth-grade teacher who has coached the chess club at Clear Creek for the last 13 of his 18 years working at the southwest Killeen school.
At the beginning of each school year they see a high participation level around 230 students, that slowly dwindles as the year progresses.
First- through fifth-graders are invited to join, and Taylor said many do because it's something to do and they don't really know what it is.
By the spring, he said the club falls to less than half the original number, but the ones who stay really enjoy it.
"It's something that's decent and helps a lot of them socially," Taylor said. "A lot of them don't have anything else to do, and if they're here, they're not in trouble."
Chess, he said, teaches the children special skills such as problem solving, strategical thinking and life application. Taylor said you can even see their grades begin to improve.
And these kids aren't just playing for fun, a select few of them put in the extra time and compete on the district, regional, state and even national level. The entrance to the school is filled with trophies from the chess team.
On May 5, 11 members of the team will head to Dallas for a four-day national tournament.
"We maintain a level of competition that is the best in KISD," Taylor said.
He even began teaching kids strategy during Monday practices - going out to buy more books once they surpassed his own strategic chess knowledge.
Cristian Olvera, 10, said he joined last year during the second grade because he didn't know what it was.
"I kept going with it, and it's a part of my life now," Cristian said. He received an honorable mention at the state tournament level earlier this year and is looking forward to the national competition.
At home, he said he likes to play his dad in chess - and he wins. For his opening, Cristian prefers to go with a pawn first and then get his queen in play. And at tournaments, he plays with his sunglasses on and R&B playing through his iPod.
"So they can't get in my head," he explained.
Taylor said that intimidation is a big part of the elementary school chess tournaments, something he didn't realize he should warn the kids about until it was too late.
"We haven't coached our kids to be devious," Taylor said. "I'm learning that maybe we should warn them against that. It's a hard lesson to learn, and you don't want to learn it at state."
Cristian said Taylor is a great coach because when those bad tournaments do happen, and you lose and you're sad, he's there for you. Cristian added this is especially important if you're mom or dad is in the Army and can't be there with you.
As a former military child himself, Taylor takes this aspect very seriously. Of the more than 800 students at Clear Creek, maybe a handful aren't military related, Taylor said. This means that only are kids getting older and moving on to middle school, but the student population completely changes every two to three years as the Army moves families from Fort Hood, bringing new ones in.
Eduardo Buendia, 8, has been on the chess team for two years, but is worried that the Army will move his parents this summer and he won't be around for it next year.
He said he joined the chess team originally because he wanted to learn strategy. "I looked up on the computer, and chess is meant for strategy, science and math," he said.
Eduardo plays wearing camouflaged gloves and his hood pulled up over his head. And he's not just all show; he said he can take a queen in just four moves.
Despite being the biggest club on campus, Cristian and Eduardo both agree that they hope the chess club continues to get more popular.
And for those that think it might be seen as nerdy, Cristian said he would tell them, "You're just mad because you're not as awesome as me."
Contact Rose L. Thayer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHreporter.