By Todd Martin
Special to the Daily Herald
FORT HOOD - This week, the Clear Creek Elementary School chess team will go to the national student tournament, a first for the 15-year-old school club.
On Monday, the 11 second- through fifth-graders scheduled for the competition continued to hone their skills in their last planned chess session before heading to Dallas Wednesday.
The U.S. Chess Federation tournament is today through Sunday at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas.
Chess coach Noel Taylor, a fifth-grade teacher at Clear Creek, said it's been an amazing year watching the club he's led for 14 years reach a new plateau in excellence.
He wasn't sure what took his team to another level. Last year, Taylor took students to the state level for the first time. This year, with nationals scheduled in Texas, he was able to round up the parent drivers to make the trip.
The team has filled two trophy cases at the Fort Hood school. An overflow table is getting
crowded, too, and that's just with team trophies.
While other club members played Monday on boards set up in a hallway, a classroom designated for the tournament-bound players buzzed with energy.
Fourth-grader Marc Austin admitted that the state tournament in Houston was challenging and figured nationals would be a step up.
Cristian Olvera, a fifth-grader, said the team seemed ready.
"We can't tell how it's going to be until we get there," he said as he matched moves with Austin.
"I like the intensity everyone has," Olvera said. "Everyone here really wants to play chess."
The players fidgeted, stood up and sat back down as they considered moves and played their matches. As some pairs finished, they gathered around teammates to watch.
At tournaments, Taylor said, the players do the same thing. They labor away in their matches and as soon as they finish, they get together with teammates and start playing one another.
"I have to tell them to stop and rest so they'll be ready for the next round," the teacher said.
"Every two years, the whole club changes (because of military moves)," Taylor said. "These kids have not played chess for long and they're doing an excellent job."
He has one player with only three years of experience; yet, the team is competing well against students who start learning the strategic game about age 3, Taylor said. "That's pretty phenomenal."
Taylor has coached chess at Clear Creek for 14 years; he said it was around before he started. The team began this year with 280 students, steadily declining to those most interested in the game.
The club meets twice a week after school, and one day is designated as a teaching day to learn new strategies.
They have learned notation, the recording of every move in a match, which is required in tournament play.
"It's kind of awe-inspiring to see the level they function at when they play chess," Taylor said. "Seeing it grow is cool."
While the students are not the most academically successful cross-section of the school, the chess coaches require that they pass all their classes to participate. Those who improve in chess seem to improve in math at the same time, Taylor said.
"It's almost a relief for them to have something where they can succeed," he said. "It's a safe place for them."
"I like how everyone has to have confidence to play," said fifth-grader Eric Weaver, who added he won three matches at the state competition.
"I like the strategic parts," said third-grader Jordan Torres. "The first time I competed, I was nervous. The second time, I wasn't."