Confidently, I eyed my opponent across the chessboard. Justin Sandler’s head of unruly blond hair barely rose above the table where we sat. I had to chuckle to myself at his poise and seriousness as he set up the pieces. After all, I was playing chess before his father was born. I’d competed against another human being no more than three times in the past 30 years, but chess, I thought, was a lot like roller-skating: once you catch on you never forget. Besides, I play a tiny chess computer game endorsed by former world champion Gary Kasparov. So I knew the match would be short and simple. He wanted white, and I was glad to oblige.

After a few moves it was clear he understood the mechanics of the game. He not only maneuvered his pieces correctly, he banged them down with reckless authority. When he’d moved both his knights forward and I was about to move my second knight onto the battlefield, he said, “Looks like a four-knight opening.”

For the first time I felt a twinge of insecurity. What did he mean? Was this just an observation or a trap? I couldn’t tell, so I shoved forward a harmless pawn. Justin looked at me and said matter-of-factly, “That was not your best choice.”

Two moves later his knight and bishop were sitting on my doorstep, and my queen was in mortal danger. I began to sweat.

“You’re taking a lot of time to move,” he said.

I handled the crisis. Actually he suggested a move I could use to avoid immediate disaster, though I would have figured it out myself if he hadn’t been in such a hurry.

A bit later I was a pawn ahead. But suddenly, from behind a screen of pawns, his other bishop appeared and put me in check. Gary Kasparov had never acted like this, at least not on my machine.

“Game’s about over,” said Justin.

I moved out of check, but now his knight was back and his queen was on the offensive too.

“Two moves till checkmate,” he chortled.

I thrashed around in embarrassment until, mercifully, his queen descended for the kill.

“Checkmate!” declared Justin, banging the piece down on the board.

Ever the gentleman, the seven-year-old first-grader didn’t rub it in. He simply offered his hand. My only consolation was the fact that I’d been right that the game would be short and simple.

A few days later a neighbor of mine whose children go to school with Justin met him on the playground and asked whether we’d played a game. “Yes,” he said. “And I kicked his butt.”

Justin attends Oakton, a sprawling, redbrick public grammar school (K through fifth) at the corner of Ridge and Oakton in Evanston that looks like it was designed by committee. The original structure opened in 1915, but over the years rising enrollment required numerous wings and extensions that now jut out at several levels and in many directions. Oakton School is the subject of regular discussion in the community and in the pages of the local press, because the southeast area of Evanston it serves is increasingly African American.

The board of school district 65 has decreed that no school in the system should have more than 60 percent enrollment of any one race. Yet despite five years of desegregation efforts, Oakton, near capacity with 540 students, is 72 percent black–26 percentage points higher than any other K-5 school in the city. In January the school board approved a plan that called for new attendance boundaries in the district, a second magnet school, and two “option areas,” sections of the district where students would be bused to schools to achieve racial balance. Many black Oakton students would be transported to Timber Ridge, a school four miles away in Skokie, while white students from the northwest part of the district would be bused down to Oakton.

A parent and clergy group called Operation Stop Gap protested the decision, claiming the reorganization “discriminated against African American children and disenfranchised two neighborhoods.” In February the board scrapped the option areas and urged parents to voluntarily enroll their children next fall in schools outside their immediate neighborhood. No one knows how that will work; in the past similar voluntary programs have failed. Whatever happens, declared one parent in an Evanston Review commentary, Oakton School will be the “big loser”–still “overcrowded, still out of racial balance and without enrichment programs or additional resources.”

Yet Oakton itself appears to be exceedingly upbeat, with clean, decorated halls and classrooms, cheerful teachers, and spirited students. Oakton math and reading scores, long the lowest in the district, took a dramatic upswing last year. Few parents seem eager to extricate their children from these environs.

“We have a lot of people working hard to make this a good school,” said Stephen Smith, the 39-year-old principal who’s in his first year at Oakton, in early March. “I see a lot of pride here.”

The most visible indication of pride is a banner hanging between two trees on Oakton Street that says “Oakton School–Illinois State Chess Champion–1993.” Oakton won the state crown in 1994 as well, but notice of that conquest has yet to be added to the banner. Inside the building is a glass case displaying the school’s athletic trophies, most of them for basketball and football, some dating as far back as 1978. That case is dwarfed by another case directly across the hall that contains a mass of newer, shinier trophies, some of colossal proportions, all acquired since 1992, all earned by Oakton’s crack chess players, including Justin Sandler. Chess is king at Oakton, with more than 100 students involved in one way or another.

But the price of being the best at anything comes high. Students forgo recess after lunch and stay after school to get instruction, study books, and play game after game. Parents leave their jobs early to give advice and oversee the activity; they organize tournaments, raise money, and drive the kids all over creation on weekends for competitive events.

Principal Smith, who was reluctant to talk about the turmoil over integrating the school, became almost euphoric when the subject of chess arose. “Such a nice thing for a school to have. It never hurts when you can hang a banner outside that says you’re the best in the entire state.” He said chess has helped lift Oakton’s reputation during difficult times, and he praised the parents for the “amazing job they’ve done in organizing it and keeping it going.”

During the first two months of this year the head that wears the crown lay uneasy. Everyone knew the 1995 state chess tournament was scheduled for early March, and it was a foregone conclusion that every grade school in the state with a chess team would be out to beat Oakton. Even as the players, especially the members of the varsity team, talked about their “three-peat” prospects, they felt apprehensive. Oakton, a problem school in many eyes, had enjoyed an improbable two-year reign in its chosen sport. No one wanted to lose that little bit of genuine glory.

Bruce Holmes, a 48-year-old computer software designer and a kind of renaissance man, is Mr. Chess at Oakton. He’s the initiator of the program, original organizer of activities, and undisputed head coach of the team. A lanky man with a high forehead, long face, and brown beard, he made me think of the stereotypical Russian chess master when I first met him. But he isn’t a chess master and didn’t even have any interest in the game until 1990.

That was about the only thing, it seems, he wasn’t interested in. Holmes has a degree in cinema from the University of California, has managed a rock group, edited textbooks, written a science fiction novel (and is working on a second), and taught folk dancing. It was at one of his dancing classes that he met his wife, Diane, a pediatrician. He now owns a software company in Evanston and in his spare time coaches soccer and plays the guitar. “He’s an innately marvelous teacher,” said Diane. “He can teach anything, and he loves a challenge.”

Seated in the living room of their comfortable home in southeast Evanston three weeks before this year’s state tournament, Bruce took obvious relish in recalling his own chess awakening. Five years ago his oldest child, Christopher, then four, saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles playing chess, asked what they were doing, then found some old chess pieces lying around the house. “We didn’t even have a board,” said his father. “But Chris would spend hours moving the pieces around like toys. He was just fascinated.”

Holmes bought a board and a copy of Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, and began educating himself and his son on the rules of the game. “I thought this was so cool and kind of remarkable–someone so young trying to learn such a complicated game. At first I’d win all the time. I’d even give myself a handicap, like playing without my queen. I could outthink him, and I had more patience.”

He vividly remembered the day, around the time Chris turned five, when that changed. “We were playing a game as usual, when suddenly I realized every move Chris was making was calculated–and devastating.” For the first time Chris creamed his father–in just over five minutes.

“I got up from the table shaking,” said Holmes. “It was scary–like he was the reincarnation of some chess master.” Chris would never again accept handicaps, and his father would rarely again beat him, and never without a struggle.

Soon Chris wanted more competition than his father could provide. One Saturday Holmes took him to a chess club on Chicago’s north side, where he competed with one of the adult regulars. A crowd gathered around, admiring the kid’s crafty defensive play. Chris lost, but one of the veterans offered to give him lessons free. Someone else called him a prodigy.

In the spring of 1991 Chris entered the Glen Ellyn Chess Classic, an open event for Chicago-area children. There was no category for preschoolers, so he was placed with the kindergartners. He took first place in that division and brought home his first trophy.

That summer his parents searched for the best school for their son. Interest in the local Catholic elementary school cooled when the principal said there was no chess there. Aware of the problems at Oakton, they approached that school cautiously. But they knew that the principal, Clara Pate, a blunt, no-nonsense woman, was esteemed in the community. At their first meeting Bruce asked her tentatively, “Do you have a chess team here?”

She eyed him carefully. “No, we don’t. Why don’t you start one?”

That was all he needed. Chris went to Oakton. “We sensed from the start the school did a pretty good job,” said Holmes. “Maybe everyone doesn’t do all that well there, but it’s a place you can do well if you want.” He admitted he was also attracted by Oakton’s underdog image–a school that needed a boost, which he could perhaps supply.

One day in early September he entered the building with books and charts for a preliminary after-class meeting with interested students. He expected a handful at best and was pleasantly surprised when Pate arrived with some 70 youngsters she’d personally recruited. She also turned over about $300, half her discretionary fund, for equipment.

Since the sets wouldn’t be available for more than a week, Holmes set up a big demonstration board and began to lecture the children. Chess, he quickly learned, is a learn-by-doing activity. “I thought I was brilliant. They didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Some of the original recruits lost interest, but some kids who’d regarded chess as a game for wimps stopped by the library or lunchroom after school and got caught up in the mounting fever. Holmes found parents who were willing to tutor or keep order. Among his first converts were Ted Drendel, who had two first-graders, and Paul Wolfson, father of another eager first-grader. “I could see right away we had some ringers,” said Holmes.

Coach Holmes would tolerate nothing slipshod in the chess program–players had to learn as well as have fun. To qualify for team play all students–including kindergartners–had to demonstrate on a chessboard that they’d mastered the basics and could perform some complex maneuvers, including the scholar’s mate, the knight fork, and checkmating an opponent with just a rook and a king.

In the spring of 1992 Holmes and a coterie of parents brought their best players to the state grammar-school championships. In this tournament the children compete in three divisions: primary, which includes kindergarten through third grade; elementary, fourth and fifth grades; and junior high, sixth through eighth grades. As a K-5 school, Oakton was confined to the primary and elementary divisions. Holmes believed Oakton’s best chance lay in the primary category, not just because that’s where his son would play, but because the younger kids had caught on so quickly and seemed to concentrate so totally once they got the idea. He was correct. Facing 40 other schools, some of which had long histories in state meets, rookie Oakton finished a respectable eighth, and Chris Holmes took first place among the kindergartners.

Clara Pate was jubilant, and Holmes was ecstatic. He wanted the “coolest possible” induction ceremony for the team. At a memorable full-school assembly in the auditorium the lights were turned down, while the Chicago Bulls’ introduction music blared out of the loudspeakers. Spotlights came on, and 20 kids attired in new black-and-silver Oakton Chess T-shirts were announced by name as they sprinted out to center stage. The students and parents in attendance went wild, and no one since has called Oakton chess a wimp sport. The spectacle has been repeated each year since.

In 1993 the Oakton players returned to the state championships with another year of training under their belts. Led by first-grader Chris Holmes, second-grader Jesse Wolfson, and third-graders Stacy-Ann Baxter and Cinnamin Finley, Oakton’s primary contingent beat all comers, bringing home a towering best-in-the-state trophy. That’s when the banner, amid further pomp, was hung in front of the school. “We needed a banner to raise,” said Holmes. “We needed people looking at us in admiration.” He entered the players in other tournaments, and the youngsters, especially the primary players, continued to excel.

In the 1994 state championships the Oakton kids brought home their second first-place trophy, and their domination remained consistent in other engagements. But in early March Holmes was still worried. “Sometimes I feel inadequate as a coach. I think the kids deserve better than I can give them.”

He also fretted about the scarcity of African American children in the program. The problem was that most black parents at Oakton didn’t have the free time to donate to chess that he and other more affluent white parents had. As a result, chess had come to be regarded as a white kids’ activity, though not exclusively. Just 5 of the 25 varsity players who would go to the 1995 state championships were black.

Then there was the continuing need to keep winning. “I really feel pressure,” said Holmes. “One of our best little players, Cinnamin, moved to Wisconsin. I miss her. You know, I’m sometimes scared to death that we’ll lose and the myth will die.” And he wondered about the long-term impact of the game on the players. “It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be just a game.”

Chris, now a seemingly well-adjusted third-grader with a love for jokes and puns, admitted he gets frightened, especially just before the start of a big match. “The fun,” he said, “is after the game–when I win.” He also enjoys the stature he’s achieved in the chess world. He once watched a youngster he’d never met study the pairings for the next game at a tournament and then moan aloud, “Oh no, I have to play Holmes!”

“That was really cool,” said Chris. But he said it’s getting harder all the time. “Some of the other kids are catching up to me.”

Holmes is proud of his son. “I’ve seen him grow. When he gets to the chessboard and sits down, he becomes suddenly confident. He almost looks like a predator. This is his world, and he knows he’s good.” Holmes is also proud of his second son, David, a ruddy-faced six-year-old who’s more extroverted than his brother. David is currently the Oakton chess team’s highest-rated first-grader. His three-year-old daughter Sara isn’t quite ready for the game.

Other than a keen competitive spirit, an uncanny ability to plan ahead, and an imperviousness to outside distractions over long periods of time, there are few common denominators among Oakton’s top players.

Five blocks from the Holmeses’ comfortable residence is the third-floor, three-bedroom apartment of Luevinia Hicks, a 30-year-old single mother of five children, ranging in age from 3 to 13. An experienced chess player, she can’t help with Oakton chess activities or even attend most meets because her life is strictly scheduled. She works the night shift, from 11 to 7, as the emergency-room secretary at nearby Saint Francis Hospital. Her brother stops in at night to baby-sit.

The most prominent piece of furniture in her home is a computer, where the kids play electronic games in their spare time. For her son, ten-year-old Jack Williams, most of these games hold little interest. A calm, soft-spoken boy with a friendly smile, Jack uses the computer to improve his chess skills, hurling himself into games his mother bought him, like Battle Chess and Cybernetic Chess. “He’ll sit there for hours if the other kids will leave him alone,” said Hicks before this year’s state tournament.

Jack is the highest-rated fifth-grader at Oakton. Younger players invariably invoke his name in tones of respect verging on reverence. “I can beat everyone but Jack,” said a third-grader. “Man, can he kick butt!” Said a first-grader, “I’m getting better–almost as good as Jack.”

Jack carries his prowess lightly. “Chess is fun,” he explained when asked why he spends so much time with the game. “I like thinking ahead, and I kinda like winning trophies.” During the past two years he’s acquired seven trophies and 12 ribbons in competition, though two of the trophies have since been dismantled and discarded by his little brothers. Innumerable chess sets have also been plundered by his siblings.

“He’s so quiet about chess,” said Hicks. “He’ll come home from a match, and he’s not excited or smiling or anything when he comes in the door. He wouldn’t even say a word if I didn’t ask how he did. Then he pulls out this huge trophy from behind his back and says, “I got a surprise for you.”‘

Across the street from the Holmeses live Pam Johnson and her nine-year-old twins, Tyler and Chelsea Drendel. Their father, Ted Drendel, helped Holmes launch Oakton’s chess club; his name appears in tiny letters on the emblem he designed for the team T-shirts and jackets. The 47-year-old Drendel died in 1993 after a long illness, and his loss is still acutely felt by everyone in the chess program.

Tyler and Chelsea are both on the varsity team, but they approach the game so differently they appear to confirm old theories about genetic distinctions between male and female. According to some analysts, chess is the quintessential male mind game–an outlet for aggression and hostility combined with reliance on a mother surrogate, the queen. Everything about Tyler, Oakton’s highest-ranked player, bespeaks competitiveness, from the determined set of his jaw to his hypnotized absorption in the game, elbows on the table, hands propping up his head, eyes on the board like twin lasers. Chelsea doesn’t take the game so seriously. She worries less about opponents, plays more freely, gets over losses quickly, and distracts herself with a host of social relationships.

Both are excellent players, said their mother, but they rarely compete against each other, even at home. “They respect each other’s space.” Is chess good for the kids? “I think so,” she said. “As long as they keep a balance and don’t let it interfere with school and other activities. We try awfully hard for balance.”

Jesse Wolfson, a fourth-grader with a small ponytail, is a bundle of nerves. In close contests he stands up and plays with one knee on his chair or pushes the chair around haphazardly as he contemplates his next move. His parents, Paul and Margie Wolfson, are both accounting teachers; he’s at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and she’s at Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Both support Oakton’s chess activities, but Jesse prefers that they never watch him in a game, because it makes him too jittery.

Maintaining perspective is sometimes a challenge for Justin Sandler, the seven-year-old who kicked my butt. His father, Richard Sandler, is a pediatric gastroenterologist, and his mother, Irene Doyle-Sandler, a former broadcast journalist, is president of the Mental Health Association of Evanston. Justin, the oldest of their three children, started playing with chess pieces when he was two. “He’d just move the pieces around,” said Irene. “He wasn’t relating to a game.” When he was four he saw a picture of Chris Holmes in the paper holding a trophy, and he wanted one too. He learned the rules quickly and got his first big trophy in 1994, when he competed in the state tournament and finished as cochampion in the kindergarten division.

Justin is among the most determined players at Oakton, and he can get downright discouraged when he loses. Among the values of the game, said his mother, is its ability to help children experience “little deaths”–temporary disappointments that don’t mean the end of the world. “Justin always aims high. He wants to be excellent in whatever he does, but he’s always fair. He knows it’s only a game.”

That, she added, is something children seem to understand better than many parents. “We have to watch ourselves. There’s a temptation to push kids too hard. For kids life is simpler. They work things out for themselves if we let them.”

Justin described one extra benefit of chess he’d seen. He was being regularly hassled during recess by a school bully and told his chess teammates, some of them big kids in fifth grade. “They fixed him so he doesn’t bother me anymore.”

Perhaps the school’s most poised player is Stacy-Ann Baxter, a bright-eyed 11-year-old fifth-grader who’s president of the Oakton School student government, active in school sports, and the highest rated among the five girls on the varsity team. She plays so slowly and deliberately she often unnerves opponents, and she seems to enjoy patiently setting traps she can spring on the unaware.

“That’s her style,” said her mother, Charmain Smith, a native of Jamaica. “Stacy-Ann is calm and self-controlled in what she does. She doesn’t let herself get down in the dumps.” Smith, a single mother, lives with her three children, including a six-year-old and a ten-month-old infant, in a two-bedroom apartment in southeast Evanston. A teacher by profession, she’s now earning her way by baby-sitting, since her youngest child requires so much of her time.

For two months before this year’s state championships the Oakton players were preparing to defend their crown. Holmes and other parent coaches appeared at school during lunch break and after classes nearly every day to give advice.

In January the team journeyed to Florida for a national competition, with individual winners named at each grade level. Oakton did well, but not well enough to take first in any grade. As usual, the overall victor was Hunter School, a demonstration grammar school affiliated with Hunter College in New York City. “They always recruit the best players from the whole state,” groused Holmes, “and they have three grand masters as coaches.”

On a Saturday in early February Oakton hosted a six-round tournament open to all the grammar schools in Evanston. Fifty-four chessboards were set up in the lunchroom for the 108 entrants, who included only nine girls. When play began, an unnatural quiet settled on the room. Parents and nonplaying children, who were barred from the area, mingled in the hallway sharing gossip and potato chips. Between games the whole building vibrated as the players released their pent-up energy.

To no one’s surprise, the Oakton players dominated. Though somewhat distracted, Justin Sandler came in first among the first-graders, while Chris Holmes was the overall best in the K-3 division. The last round of the elementary division featured a clash of titans when Tyler Drendel and Jack Williams, both undefeated through the first five rounds, met. After a tense struggle Jack emerged the winner, furthering his reputation with the small kids.

Asked why so few girls participated, one mother said, “Look, it’s a boys’ thing, that’s all. You don’t see boys studying dance or playing violins, do you?” Said another mother, “I think it’s cultural. Girls could do just as well, but they’re steered away from chess. It’s really too bad, because chess helps kids think.”

On another Saturday in February Oakton competed in a contest at a junior high in Glen Ellyn involving some 50 local schools. As a team Oakton finished first.

Rumor had it that Oakland, a school in Bloomington, where the state championships were to be held, had been gearing up for a major assault. “When you think about it,” said Holmes, “you realize how easily we could have lost last year, how easily it could have just slipped away. Sometimes it’s just a matter of one game or less than a game.”

Toward the end of the month Oakton hosted an after-school match with the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School from Chicago’s near north side. “We’re just getting started, and we need the experience,” said the school coach, Jeff Ellison. “So we thought, why not play the best?”

The games were decidedly informal affairs; and little attention was paid to winners or losers. But Justin Sandler was dutifully marking down all the moves in his game on a large chess notation pad designed for young children. His mother had been concerned about his concentration and had promised him a Popsicle if he kept a record of the game. A top player at Evanston High School had been tutoring Justin for an hour a week, and the Holmes brothers and several others were also being tutored.

As time grew short the Oakton parents hired one of the best young chess masters in the Chicago area to come two days after school and provide instruction and inspiration. Steve Arlinsky, a 19-year-old freshman at Loyola University, is a two-time state high school champ and the fifth highest ranked college player in the nation. He propped up a big metal demonstration board with magnetic pieces in the library and quizzed about 25 students on subtle aspects of the game. In one session he gave both sides five pawns and a king, then barked out questions.

“Quick now, which side has the advantage?”

“White!” said someone.


About ten children answered at once, contradicting one another in the process. Arlinsky made them see the importance of position in a tight match–how a strategically placed king could guard a small herd of weak pawns. Then he shuffled the pieces around like a huckster in a shell game, challenging his pupils to see the possibilities in new combinations. The older children gave him their full attention; the younger ones gradually lost interest. At one point the big board slipped off the table and crashed to the floor, the chess pieces flying in all directions. The children cheered, clapped, and gave each other high fives, perhaps a sign that the seriousness of the preparations was starting to wear on them.

After 45 minutes of instruction Arlinsky agreed to play 12 games simultaneously. The students sat two at a board playing the white pieces, while he walked around the room playing black. In most cases he needed to glance at a board for only a second or two before making his move and passing on to the next. The kids loved it, but despite their skills, few of them could handle Arlinsky for long. Justin Sandler played astutely for a while, then saw his position deteriorate. Toward the end he was looking tired and singing to himself, “I’m gonna get my butt kicked.” Tyler and Jack held out the longest, forcing Arlinsky to concentrate for a minute or more before his final moves. But eventually he prevailed.

Later he explained that he’d attended chess school in Russia until six years ago, when his family moved to this country. “The kids here are good,” he said, “but Russian kids, they play three, four hours a day, seven days a week. They are the best.”

The Monday before the championship the students were off school for Presidents’ Day, so Irene Doyle-Sandler and some other mothers arranged a three-hour, low-pressure minitournament at the Sandler home. Eighteen Oakton players took part.

After school on Friday, March 10, a caravan of cars and minibuses carrying 25 children and a dozen adults left Evanston on the 150-mile jaunt to Bloomington. The entourage stayed overnight at a motel in Pontiac, where the children got to swim. The next morning some of the kids had little appetite, and some parents said they hadn’t slept very well.

The group arrived at the immense, sprawling Bloomington High School in plenty of time for the start of the two-day event. They mingled with parents and children from 60 other Illinois schools, from as far north as Rockford and as far south as Springfield, though the vast majority were from the Chicago area. Set up in a huge, modern gymnasium were 55 tables with six chessboards to a table. The 660 entrants would compete in three divisions: primary, elementary, and junior high.

Tournament chess, newcomers quickly learned, is not a spectator sport. Nonplayers were banned from the arena during competition and directed to a gym adjacent to the playing area, where they could await word from the children after each round. Parents set up little squares of card tables and chairs, forming oases of support for their players between games. The Oakton contingent managed to get one of the best spots, right inside the door.

Behind the scenes tournament officials stood around a computer and made small talk in remarkably relaxed fashion. In the old days running a large event like this was an organizational nightmare, with waits of two hours or more between rounds while results of the matches, laboriously jotted down on file cards, were sorted out and pairings for the next round were determined. Here a computer program designed for large chess events would do the painful work. Already entered in the computer were numbers for all of the players along with their names, their schools, and, most important, their chess ratings. Ratings are crucial in events like this because they keep the competition even. According to the rules of the U.S. Chess Federation, an official rating is assigned to a player after he or she has participated in 20 authorized events. By a complex mathematical formula virtually unintelligible to the uninitiated, a player’s rating then goes up or down depending on the outcome of each game played against another rated player.

Players were instructed that at the end of every game both winner and loser were to go to a scorekeeper’s table and report the outcome. Results would then be relayed to the officials and entered in the computer. As soon as the last score for a given round was entered the computer would determine pairings for the next round.

A preliminary printout revealed that Chris Holmes, with a rating of 1146, was the fifth-highest-ranked player among the 240 in the primary division; five other Oakton youngsters were in the top 36. In the elementary division Tyler Drendel was sixth highest among 240. In a rare moment of giddiness Holmes wondered if his team could not only three-peat in the primary category but also take the elementary category. With fourth-graders like Tyler and Jesse Wolfson playing, anything seemed possible. Yet Holmes was increasingly anxious given that some of the best players in the previous year’s primary lineup had moved into the elementary category, and he wondered if the younger kids could hold the fort.

A school’s outcome in the state championships is determined by adding up the wins (one point each) and ties (half a point each) of that school’s four best performers over seven rounds. If four players on a team were to win all their games, that school would score 28–a rare feat, the equivalent of a no-hitter in baseball. So it doesn’t matter if some team players do badly as long as at least four do exceedingly well.

At 10:30 the players assembled in the gym, shook hands, and the chess silence descended. Within three or four minutes some games had been decided, and the winners and losers were on their way to the scorekeeper.

In the waiting area a tense Holmes had his tally sheet ready, while Irene Doyle-Sandler, Pam Johnson, and other mothers unpacked a gigantic cache of food. At 11 the first Oakton players reported in. The results appeared disastrous. Tyler Drendel was grim and inconsolable, a loser in the first round. Also going down to defeat were Stacy-Ann Baxter and eight other hopefuls among Oakton’s 15-member elementary delegation. Jesse Wolfson won but arrived sweating, his face flushed. “I got so exhausted,” he said. “I just got so exhausted.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Holmes. “We usually just breeze through the first round.” The primary group did better but suffered some tough losses too.

When one girl reported her loss and then broke down in tears, Holmes set his score sheet aside, took her in his arms, and gently rocked her. “It’s all right honey. It’s all right. It’s just a game.” The message apparently boosted her spirits, for moments later she was sucking the cream out of an Oreo cookie.

When another Oakton girl came running in grinning, Holmes said, “Great! You won?”

“No,” she said, still smiling. “I lost.” She ran outside, where she joined huge numbers of children in the sunshine chasing footballs and soccer balls around the high school playing fields.

In the second round the Oakton team rallied in both the primary and elementary divisions, but the slow start had taken its toll. School standings posted at that point showed Oakton in 9th place in the K-3 primary division and in 12th place in the 4-5 elementary field. Parents fretted, and Holmes attempted to give advice, even urging some of the older children to re-create on the chessboard he’d brought along the critical moves in their matches.

Waiting for outcomes at a chess tournament can be as frustrating as it is tedious. Parents attending these events are not there hovering over the chessboard when their little one, with an inspiration bordering on genius, makes a move that plucks victory out of the jaws of defeat. Nor can young children tell their parents what they did, other than to exclaim, “Man, that was a close one!” And even if parents had been there at the critical moment few would have been able to grasp the cunning of their child: most of these kids are so far beyond their elders that they’ve moved into another realm.

At the Oakton headquarters one father read a self-improvement book, a mother who’s a teacher corrected papers, several parents discussed whether heaven exists, then decided their decision should be put off until they determined whether God exists. One mother lamented her son’s poor start as she made herself a sandwich. “He’s really good,” she said. “He beats the best players at school all the time. But he has trouble in these big tournaments. I just don’t understand it, I really don’t. We never pressure him.”

Wandering around the complex, I saw concerned-looking parents everywhere, many trying to distract themselves with gin rummy, backgammon, crossword puzzles, the National Enquirer, or portable television sets. Some examined the elaborate chess sets and chess clocks on sale in a large open area. Others crowded around long tables piled high with copies of chess books with obscure titles like Play the Caro-Kann, The Catalan Opening, or The Sicilian Defense. One book, intriguingly titled Black and White Passion, contained nothing but photographs of fully dressed, anonymous people playing chess. Another, called How to Beat the Russians, had nothing to say about international diplomacy.

Garrett Scott, the promoter of this year’s championship, a large-bellied, grandfatherly man, is to central-Illinois chess what Holmes is to Oakton chess. It was he who in the early 1980s began preaching about the brain-expanding potential of chess to parent groups and school administrators. As a result, the number of schools participating in state events has gradually increased. Especially noteworthy, he said, is the increasing involvement of girls and African Americans. He estimated that this year’s championship enrollment was 33 percent female and about 13 percent black.

Scott is the longtime coach at Oakland, the school most feared by Oakton rooters. “No way we’re competition this year. We just don’t have the people.” Then he added, “There’s others on their way up.”

After the third round Saturday afternoon Holmes felt better. Seven of Oakton’s best elementary players, including Tyler, Jack, and Jesse, won their matches. In the primary group the Holmes brothers remained undefeated, and some of the slow beginners were getting on track. Oakton moved up several notches in the standings. But Justin Sandler had lost in both the second and third rounds and was the picture of gloom. “I stink,” he told his mother.

The fourth round, the final one to be played Saturday, saw Oakton’s elementary rally continue, with the top four all scoring wins. At the end of the day the team was in a virtual tie for first place. The younger children had held their own. David Holmes lost, but his brother Chris didn’t; the primary team rose to fourth place. Holmes smiled for the first time. “I think we’re coming around,” he said.

Tournament-chess protocol requires that after each round winners move up toward the tables at the front of the playing area, where they’re matched with other winners. Steady losers are pushed back in succeeding rounds, and the mediocre stall somewhere in the middle. By the start of the fifth round Sunday morning Oakton’s elementary heavyweights had moved up to the top four tables. And undefeated Jesse Wolfson found himself at the envied number-one board at the first table. He ate little for breakfast because he knew his opponent would be the undefeated and much feared Johnny Weier from West Chicago, the number-three rated player in the tourney. By this time the only two players rated higher than Johnny had suffered at least one defeat.

Standing on a balcony at the front end of the gym, I was among a handful of spectators who could look down and follow the game at the first table. Jesse’s match was extremely tight, each side finally reduced to a bishop, three pawns, and the king. Jesse owned one pawn that had a straight shot at his opponent’s back row (and instant resurrection as a queen), but Johnny’s bishop effectively blocked the way.The two jockeyed around for many moves. Jesse stood up, sat down, and fidgeted. At last he persuaded Johnny to use his bishop to attack a freestanding pawn on the other side of the board. Momentarily free, Jesse’s pawn made a mad dash for the back row. Johnny had calculated that he could get his bishop back in time to block the run, but he couldn’t. Jesse got his queen and his fifth win.

High fives resounded at Oakton’s gathering spot when the news arrived, and more jubilation greeted wins by Tyler and Stacy-Ann. But Jack Williams lost for the first time. The primary group, led by the imperturbable Chris Holmes, racked up several more important wins, but remained in fourth place.

In the sixth round Oakton’s elementary leaders–including Jack, Tyler, and Jesse–won. Tyler, who was notating all the moves during his games, played the longest game of his young career–49 moves. Jesse, now firmly ensconced at the number-one board, had little trouble snatching his sixth victory. He got his opponent in a tight defensive position almost from the start. While his foe spent long, agonizing minutes trying to wriggle free, Jesse strolled around the playing area, checking out other games. The primary youngsters also came through with a few helpful wins.

Going into the seventh and last round Oakton’s prospects looked reasonably good. They were now in first place in elementary, a full point ahead. The primary players were in fourth place, but the contenders were closely bunched. Of the six games at the number-one elementary-level table, Oakton players were involved in four: Jesse, Jack, Stacy-Ann, and Tyler. Jesse and his opponent, Kyle Kidwell from Bloomington, were the only remaining undefeated players in their division. At the number-one board at the number-one table in primary, Chris Holmes, also undefeated, faced off against a foe he knew well–Matt Leali from Peoria. The two had tangled twice before, both times at big tournaments, each winning once; Chris’s win had come one year before in the final round of the state championship. Holmes had the team members join hands for a moment of silence before the start.

Jesse’s foe broke just about every rule of conventional chess wisdom with an unorthodox opening: bringing out his queen on the second move, then both his knights–and not toward the center of the board as prudence dictates, but toward the edge. The ploy seemed to stun Jesse. After a half dozen more moves, Kyle had a massive frontal attack threatening a quick end to the match. Jesse never moved from his chair. He managed a series of shrewd trades that kept him alive, but only temporarily. Kyle held him in almost continual check until the end.

Jack was the next to fall. His opponent pinned him down so effectively he couldn’t bring his lethal offensive talents into play. Stacy-Ann played with unruffled calm, moving with careful deliberation, but in the end she too lost, though by the narrowest of margins. Only Tyler escaped defeat. His game ended in a draw, giving Oakton a total of half a point for the round.

Meanwhile Chris and Matt Leali remained in deep concentration at their primary-division table long after most of the other players had departed. Finally Chris too had to accept the “little death” of defeat. Justin, David, and several others won in the final round, but Oakton needed more than that.

At the awards ceremony immediately after the round Garrett Scott, attired in a green T-shirt and red suspenders, announced the winners. Fifteen trophies were awarded in each grade division, five for the highest scorers in each of the three playing categories, and ten to the top schools in each category. Jesse Wolfson finished second in the elementary division, and Chris Holmes third in the primary. Other Oakton trophy winners included Tyler, Stacy-Ann, Jack, David, Justin, Sarah Peteraf, Jonathan Klemt, Emmett Adler, and Peter Klimkow.

But in the primary division Oakton had finished fourth. The winner was previously unheard of Benjamin Franklin School of Park Ridge, in its first year of state competition. In the elementary division Oakton came in third, overtaken in the final round by the Douglas MacArthur School of Hoffman Estates.

Holmes sat near the front of the auditorium in his black-and-silver Oakton Chess shirt, his team and the other parents around him. There were no visible tears. Everyone cheered and clapped as loudly for the winners from other schools as for their own.

On the way back home Sunday night, most of the dog-tired Oakton contingent stopped for dinner at a restaurant in Joliet. Holmes gave a little speech. “This has been a fabulous experience. I’m proud of you all, and you should be proud. And I don’t want to hear any sour grapes about coming in third or fourth.” Then he said he’d been checking his tally sheet, and the figures showed that the combined scores of Oakton’s primary and elementary teams were higher than the combined scores of any other school in the tourney. Of course, he noted, that isn’t the way the championship is determined, and it didn’t mean that Oakton really won. It just showed that Oakton School was still one heck of a chess powerhouse. The myth was not dead.

The next week Holmes was at the school during lunch break every day coaching the players. “I got into this for selfish reasons,” he admitted, “but I’ve been repaid. To work with these remarkable, special kids is a privilege. Most are going to make it in this world, with or without chess. But I’d like to think that with some of them chess is making a difference–teaching the importance of discipline, strategy, giving them a sense of genuine achievement.” He planned to go over the details of Jesse Wolfson’s last match to determine how he’d been blindsided.

Interest in the game did not seem diminished. Chris and David Holmes, Tyler Drendel, and Jack Williams were playing after school with as much gusto as ever, preparing for several other upcoming tournaments. Stacy-Ann Baxter wasn’t discouraged about her defeat, said her mother, and was actually quite pleased with the trophy she’d won. And Justin Sandler admitted he was proud of his performance after his mother explained that excellence is what we shoot for.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Mike Tappin.