By Chris McGuinness
Harker Heights Herald
A group of students at Skipcha Elementary School was focused and ready to compete.
The students weren't staying after school for baseball, track or football but for another sport: chess.
The Skipcha chess club held its first meeting of the 2011-12 school year Nov. 9, and welcomed 16 students, grades three through five, who came to improve their skills and practice for competitions later in the year.
"The first meeting is always fun," said the club's instructor, Skipcha technologist Frank Arevalo. "You get to see where everyone is at, and meet the new kids who have come to learn how to play."
This is Arevalo's sixth year manning the chess club at the school, and his 13th year doing so in the district. The club welcomes students of all skill levels, from third- and fourth-year returnees to students who have never played the game before.
"A lot of (the newcomers) are curious about the game," Arevalo said. "They see us around school and want to know more. They think it's cool."
Volunteer Daryl Foss, who said he has been playing chess for 30 years, said he enjoyed watching the energy the young students brought to learning the game.
"They get so excited about it, and I think that enthusiasm drives them to learn more and improve their skills."
Arevalo said the group's meetings usually begin with a lesson, often taught on one of the school's interactive white boards, followed by practice games between the students.
For their first meeting, Arevalo went over the basics of chess, including all of the pieces and how they are allowed to move on the board.
While it was all new to some of the students at the meeting, the information was well known to the club's more experienced players like fifth-grader Pete Lealiiee.
Lealiiee said he has been playing chess in the club for the last three years, and enjoys the way the game encourages him to think creatively.
"I like the format," said Lealiiee. "I like the way you have to play, and how it makes you think while your playing."
Students like Lealiiee and others in the club don't just play each other. Arevalo said the group competes within KISD, as well as at the local, regional and occasionally state levels. In 2010, the school team took home a trophy for the Chesswargames regional competition.
Last year, Lealiiee took second place in a KISD district event.
But it's not just about winning. Arevalo said the children are learning skills that go beyond their weekly meetings.
"It plays into areas like math, critical thinking and logic skills," Arevalo said. "We also teach them the etiquette of the game. It shows them how to talk to a competitor in a constructive way instead of screaming in their face."
While the club is only open to third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, Arevalo said the school has begun to groom future chess players at an even younger age.
"On Friday mornings we host kids from grades who are as young as kindergarten," said Arevalo. "So we will be building those skills from an even younger age."
Despite the challenges of teaching a complex game like chess to such a young group, Arevalo said most people would be surprised how fast they pick up the game and are able to improve their skills.
"Kids are able to learn things so quickly, whether it's a foreign language or technology," said Arevalo. "It's amazing how fast they get good at it."
Contact Chris McGuinness at email@example.com or (254) 501-7568.