Lacomb Chess Club gives kids training in game, life

By Larry Coonrod

For Lebanon Local

It’s 3 p.m. on a Monday and as students in Brandon Weist’s last class of the day rush outside to enjoy a sunny December afternoon, 20 or so youngsters of the Lacomb School chess club queue up outside the door.

Over the next hour pawns, knights, rooks, bishops and queens will clash in pursuit of their opponent’s king.

Five years ago, Weist, a 2007 Sweet Home High School graduate, decided he wanted to bring more activities and opportunities to Lacomb students.

“Chess club was one of the first things I thought of because I myself learned to play chess at my elementary school in fourth grade,” he said.

His fourth-grade teacher, the late Robert Keller at Foster Ele-mentary School in Sweet Home, influenced Weist in both chess and career choice, he said.

“Chess has kind of a nerdy reputation, but he made chess cool,” Weist said. “That’s what I’d like to do around here. Make chess cool and kids enthusiastic about it.”

The club members brought plenty of enthusiasm to the first December club meeting.

CHESS CLUB adviser Brandon Weist teaching students about the en passant rule during a recent meeting at Lacomb School.
Photo by Larry Coonrod

 Before play starts, Weist gives a quick lesson on en passant, a special pawn capture rule, using chess diagrams. Players’ hands shoot up to volunteer guesses at which pawns might fall to an en passant play.

Lesson over, students square off against their next opponent in the club’s ongoing winter tournament, which serves as a warm-up for a upcoming regional tournament.

Every February, five to 10 of the best players compete against other schools at the Chess for Success event in Monmouth. From there the winners move on to the state tournament.

“We’ve finished second place or higher each year,” Weist said.
The club’s two female members, eighth-graders Jannah Jimenez and Cassidy Jones are soon locked in an intense back and forth across the board when Jones lets out a groan.

A blunder makes the capture of her queen inevitable. Losing a queen – the most powerful piece – means almost certain defeat and today is no exception.

Jimenez and Jones, both multi-sport athletes, have taken the basketball ball season off to participate in chess club.

That’s something Weist is excited about. Chess still tends to be a majority male activity, he said.

“Chess is like a puzzle to my brain because I’m an athlete,” Jimenez said.

The hardest part of chess is competing against friends. It’s hard, because Cassidy is my best friend.”

Caleb Black, an eighth-grader and two-time veteran of the state tournament, said competing in tournaments is stressful and tiring.

“It’s the waiting and thinking about moves.”

Initially for middle schoolers, the club soon expanded to grades four, five and six,

EIGHTH-GRADERS Cassidy Jones, left, and Jannah Jimenez battle it out on the chess board. Lacomb School Chess Club members play every Monday in preparation for a tournament against other schools in February.
Photo by Larry Coonrod

and this year includes Jameson Graham, a budding second-grade chess prodigy.

“Jameson has skills,” said Weist.
Weist devotes the first few weeks of the new school year to having the more experienced players teach the younger students chess fundamentals.

“One benefit of a K-8 school is you get those good leaders – middle-grade students who set an example and teach the younger kids,” he said.

On its surface, chess is a simple game. Each player starts with 16 pieces placed on a board of 64 alternate colored squares. Under that simplicity lies a complex game that  few ever master.

Consider this: There are nearly 3 billion (yes, billion) possible combinations for the players to make their first four moves. Although most games last between 30 and 40 moves, the longest game possible is 5,949 moves (the longest actual recorded game lasted 269 moves).

That complexity makes chess a favorite learning tool in schools. Research shows that  learning chess not only improves children’s problem-solving and critical thinking skills but math and reading as well.

“The better chess players are the ones who take their time and are very methodical and think about all their possible options,” Weist said.

“I think that translates a lot to school and strategizing and saying what assignments do I have to turn in? What’s the best option for me.

“Ultimately, I think that translates to life: prioritizing strategy and thinking about your moves before you make them.”