Checkmate! Chess alive and well in Sussex County

The greatest players in the game have described chess in a variety of ways. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first undisputed world chess champion, from 1886 through 1894, identified the board game as “intellectual gymnastics.” Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov has claimed it to be “mental torture.” Bobby Fisher, who was widely considered one of the greatest chess players of all time, said, “Chess is life.” However you look at it, there’s no denying that chess is a perplexing and intriguing pastime, shared by millions.

This April, the Lighthouse Christian School of Dagsboro will be sending two youth teams to Owings Mills, Md., for the 2011 Chess Tournament, sponsored by the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI).

Lighthouse Christian School will be represented by a team of four students from grades 1 through 4, competing in the elementary-school division, and four students in grades 5 through 8, who will participate in the middle-school division. It will be the school’s third consecutive year as a participant in the tournament, and with a new coach to help out, expectations are running high.

“We’re trying to teach a few things with the game of chess,” said Hal Walloch, who is coaching the teams at Lighthouse Christian School. “There’s a lot of sportsmanship in chess, and that’s among the first thing you learn. Every chess game has an opening, middle and an end game. As we progress, we’re teaching the kids different techniques of the game.”

A variety of puzzles help to sharpen the mid and encourage students to think on their toes.

At last year’s tournament, Lighthouse Christian School’s teams, the only Delaware ACSI school to enter the competition, finished in the middle of their respective divisions.

“Finishing right in the middle is great for these teams,” said Walloch, “especially considering we only had one student with any tournament chess experience.”

Competition in the tournament will hail from Delaware, along with Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In all, 23 teams representing the four states compete in three different age levels - elementary, middle and high schools.

“These teams bring good competition, and are well-trained,” said Walloch, who learned the game from his father as a preschooler. He played in the Correspondence Chess League, representing the United States versus the Netherlands.

Recalling his intrigue in the game growing up, Walloch is already seeing signs in this year’s students.

“These kids show a strong aptitude for the game,” he said. “Interest in chess has really picked up again. There are roughly 900 kids at the junior-high level competing in chess tournaments, and 1,300 high-schoolers who compete.”

While the majority of the interest within Delaware has sparked upstate, near Wilmington, Walloch said he is hoping that it catches on in the southern region, as well.

“Chess has a lot of great benefits for students who start playing at a young age,” he said. “It stimulates creative thinking and planning, enhances problem solving and strengthens perception skills.”

Principal Terri Menoche at Lighthouse Christian School is also enthusiastic about spreading fascination of chess throughout the area.

“Originally,” she said, “it was offered as an elective for students, but people were opting for that over computer time. Soon, people were bringing chess boards to the lunch rooms.

“We’ve applied for grants for more boards, clocks and equipment,” Menoche added. “Plenty of studies have shown that playing chess carries over to academics in the classroom. There is a pretty positive correlation there, and Coach Hal is very passionate about everything. He’s really come across to the kids. Parents are excited, too, and they’re helping out and getting involved. It’s great to have our kids finding something like this that they love doing.”