Mind game keeps kids in check

Kenai students play classic challenge of strategy

Posted: Wednesday, November 21, 2001

The hottest game at Mountain View Elementary School these days involves more mental muscle than heavy lifting.

Students are lining up in droves to play chess at the Kenai intermediate school.

The school's chess club, in its third year, attracts about 50 students to its Monday afternoon meetings.

"This is probably our biggest year," said Philippa Sonnichsen, a parent volunteer and the group's informal coach.

"It's not all that intense. I think they mostly have fun," she said.


Amber Wright thinks about her next move in one of her matches.


The club even has children from Sears as young as first grade who come over on the bus after school to participate.

She and teacher Berni Wensley credit their sons for inspiring the project. One summer the two women got to talking about how much their boys enjoyed chess.

Sonnichsen's son Alex encouraged his mother to set up a club. Wensley got principal Jim Dawson on board, and the project took off.

Students have a choice of playing face to face over a traditional board or playing a computer game with animated pieces.

The computer program, Chess Mates, is good for beginners, Wensley said. The machine won't let the player make illegal moves and, upon request, a wizard pops up to offer helpful advice.


"OK, the knight moves two spaces up and one over. Or is that one space over and two up?" Students at Mountain View Elementary School in Kenai learn how to move the chess pieces before mastering the game, and the club is designed to allow everyone to learn at their own pace, with more experienced students helping the newcomers.


Faces and sound effects spice up the action. For example, when a queen takes a pawn, an astonish face appears on the little piece, the square beneath it opens like a trap door and it disappears with a downward whoosh.

But the computer is no substitute for a real opponent. Like people of all ages around the world for centuries, the Kenai kids are hooked on the face-to-face duel of intellects.

In the library, kids line up to wait for turns at the boards.

Fifth-grader Travis Werba is one of the young masters-in-the-making. He has never seen a professional chess match, but he finds the game different and intriguing.

"It gives me something to do," he said.


Parent volunteer Philippa Sonnichsen listens to a chess question from Becca Satathite during last week's Monday afternoon chess club meeting.


"You have to think a lot."

Werba said he took up the game because his father, who lives in Seldovia, likes to play. When they get together,

they play frequently. His game has improved so much in the three years since he joined the club that he can now beat his dad about a third of the time, he said.

He prefers the personal matches, hands down.

"Your friends are funner. They actually help you; the computer doesn't," he said.


Christi Lackey and Jessica Carreon play computer chess in Mountain View's Mac Lab. Teacher Berni Wensley, background, helps another student get started.


Except for the rare tournament, the students help each other and teach newcomers and little ones the rules of the game. Werba said the beginners get confused about how the pieces can move, especially the knight.

"You can only go forward, but most of the little kids go sideways," he said sagely.

Sonnichsen said the emphasis is recreational, but chess is a subtle mind stretcher for the club members.

"We know that kids have to be able to look at the overview because there are so many pieces. It is an educational tool," she said.

Success, she noted, is independent of age and allows some children who are not athletic to find a field of competition where they can excel.

Fifth-grader Dustin Bayes offered to help a reporter brush up her rusty chess skills. After a suspenseful game played to a mutually satisfactory stalemate, he summed up the appeal of this famous game of strategy.

"That was fun," he said.

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