Volume 17, Number 45 | April 1 — 7, 2005

Youth

Good ol’ boys and girls from Chinatown bound for Tennessee chess championship

P.S. 42’s Denny Lu, left, and Lisa Qiu, center, and their teammates are headed to Nashville for a national chess tournament.
Downtown Express photo by Ramin Talaie

By Aman Singh

“I’m excited about flying on an airplane,” said Lisa Qiu. “We’ll be in the air for two hours!” Denny Lu added.

Both Qiu and Lu are members of P.S. 42’s chess team, which won the Manhattan Borough Chess Championships and four teammates are heading down to Nashville, Tenn. next week for the National Chess Championship from April 7 – 11. Six fifth graders from the school are making the trip.

This chess team of Benjamin Altman school — or P.S. 42, its more common name — in Chinatown also won all the chess laurels, team-wise and individually in the Manhattan Championships held in January this year, including Best Team and Best Chess master won by Qiu.

The fact that they will be playing against school students from all 50 states across the country doesn’t seem to faze them. Or their coach.

“That’s a lot of competition. But they’re a confident lot, have been practicing, have won all the major competitions so far this year, and have last year’s experience to learn from,” says Cathy Lee, one of the team’s coaches, who will, however, not be accompanying them to the championships.

Another teacher, Grace Ng, who helps Lee with coaching sometimes and took the students to the nationals last year too, will be chaperoning them. She is also a former student of the school.

Most of these students have been playing the game since second grade, partly, because Lee was their teacher at that time, and encouraged them to explore their mental skills. “Most of them were in my class when I volunteered to start coaching interested students in chess. A lot of them showed an interest, and some stayed, others slacked off,” Lee said.

All of the players taking the trip — Keith Chan, Yang Lin, Gloria Trinh, Fabio Lora, Qiu and Lu — have been playing with Lee since the third grade. Some of the younger members of the chess club, who will try out for the next championships, have even longer backgrounds in chess.

For example, Alchi Sam, who is in third grade, began learning it in kindergarten. “My cousins are very good at it and I used to see them playing it all the time. So I just watched them and taught myself,” she said.

Lawrence Zhang, who is in fourth grade, said his elder sister won a lot of chess tournaments when he was in first grade, and seeing her, decided to learn it.

Rosa O’Day, the school’s principal, said the Chess In The Schools, sponsored by the American Chess Foundation, began the program for just one grade.

“They only wanted to focus on second graders,” said O’Day. “I felt that wasn’t fair to the rest of the students and so I asked teachers and interested students to volunteer and expand the program to other grades.”

Many students practice diligently at home with siblings, besides going to different tournaments every Saturday and meeting after school on Wednesdays and Thursdays for professional coaching provided by Peter Barkman from the American Chess Foundation.

The school’s entrance is decorated with chess trophies and plaques won over the last few years. Although chess was introduced in the school more than 14 years ago, according to Lee, more emphasis was put after Richard Abrons, President of the Louis and Anne Abrons Foundation, showed an interest in funding the initiative.

Abrons, whose mother grew up near the school on the Lower East Side, not only funds the chess activities at the school, but also provides numerous grants for other extra-curricular activities.

“The primary target of his grants has been chess, where all the Saturday tournaments, after-school sessions, professional coaching and payment of the school teachers who act as chaperones and coaches, when the American Foundation of Chess coach isn’t here, are covered,” said O’Day.

Both Lee and O’Day say next week’s trip is more about learning experience than about winning the championship.

“We are focusing more on it being a wholesome experience for these young kids, who have not previously had the chance to experience a simple thing as a plane ride, or staying in a hotel. The whole journey will be an experience that they will learn from and remember all their life,” said O’Day.

“Thankfully, these fortunate students have accumulated enough grants and scholarships from their previous wins this year to make this journey possible,” she said.

For many of the students, this is their first trip out of New York City, making the anxiety of the tournament more bearable. Qui, one of the strongest players on the team, assumes an air of confidence and hidden excitement when asked about next week’s championships. “I won at the Manhattan Borough Championships. Now I’m more excited about flying in an airplane,” she said. To which Keith quickly added, with a wink to his instructor, “And we’re going without Ms. Lee.”

Keith received a firm stare from his teacher, who says, the students have been with her for three years and so enjoy a comfort level with her. “We’ve been together for many years now. They are allowed this freedom to be comfortable with me,” she laughs.

But what happens to her efforts and the school’s encouragement to these kids — most of whose parents cannot contribute financially — once they graduate from 42?

“I have met many students when I go to the tournaments who come to participate and have been my students earlier. It’s such a pride seeing them play a game, that I feel, is all about the quickness of the mind and skillful tactics,” said Lee. Most of them raise their hands eagerly when asked whether they would continue playing chess, once they leave the confines of P.S 42.

While Chess In The School is a popular project that encourages students to learn the game, it doesn’t provide funds to make it feasible. “In most other schools that have active chess teams, the parents are able to contribute funds to help their students pursue chess,” said O’Day. “But here, the community cannot afford such fund collection. That’s where people like Abrons become the saving grace.”

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