By Steve Robinson | March 3, 2019 - 10:01 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Chess is not my game. I have admitted to that in a previous column or two. I haven’t played it since fifth grade when I would with classmate John Crew years ago. He taught me how to play and although I tried my best, I didn’t win when we played. I was that bad. And now that some time has gone by, I know I am so out of practice that I couldn’t make it to State if I were in high school now playing.

But I know of an area high school team which made it to State and finished in the top 10 for the first time, doing it this year, at the Illinois High School High School Association State Chess Tournament. The event took place at the Peoria Civic Center, a two-day event which was held in February. That team was from Normal West Community High School, coached by Vicki Kafer, assisted by Garrett Scott. Normal West finished 10th in the State, in fact, and was the only downstate team to land that high a ranking. Other top 10 high schools included top team Chicago Whitney Young, 2nd place finisher Barrington, and 8th place finisher Naperville North.

To get to State, chess competitors must win a Sectional competition first, added Dayna Brown, director of communications and community relations for Normal-based Unit 5 School District.

In Chess competition, each team has 7 players who win one point for a victory, with seven points being the most if the player wins all their matches. Teams also have alternates who can step in and play if any of those seven aren’t available.

All those points are tallied up to determine total points for the team, and where they rank among all the teams participating. Although there were 128 schools eligible to compete in Peoria this year, a few withdrew leaving 125 to compete.

Members of Normal West’s Chess Team are: Freshmen Jacob Davis and Nick Husarik; Sophomore Clayton Cannon; Juniors Evan Ericson, Tori Kafer, and Austin Schillage; And seniors Gabe Chambers, Clayton Davis, Joseph Kessinger, Justin O’Brien, Sawyer Price, and Rebekah Nielsen.

For Nielsen, a senior and daughter of Adam Nielsen and Brown, chess is a different experience each time to her because “each game is different, and I get to prove that even though I’m a senior and I’m pretty athletic, that I still have an intelligent side for chess.”

Nielsen said people are more familiar with her as an athlete being part of the Wildcats’ girls’ Soccer team. That team finished in fourth place at State competition at Naperville last year.

How Chess Began In Area Schools: Scott said he began teaching young minds the game of chess at Oakland Elementary School in Bloomington’s District #87 back in 1986. His reasoning was “because I enjoy chess, and the district began a chess program because there were some opportunities.” He said the students that first year experienced success that first time out. During that first year, a couple tournaments were organized and, Scott said, within the next few years, “10 or 11 schools had chess clubs in Bloomington-Normal and Tri-Valley.”

By junior high school, students would ask teachers to form a chess club, and teachers would see the value of doing so and agree to start one, Scott said. He added that 40-plus years ago, there were about 50 or 60 high school chess teams competing, mostly in northeast corner of the state. Now, however, Scott said, “Predominately, it’s still up north, but now it’s around 180 or 190 schools that have competitive teams.”

Chess Teams Get Better Together: In Normal West’s case, the kids who took to the chess team did what Scott said sometimes occurs which is “the kids get better at chess together.” He said if they have already gotten good at it in junior high, they can continue doing well in high school. But he added, referring to Normal West’s recent accomplishment, “To get into the top 10 means the students have worked really hard, and they’ve had good enough luck to get several young players to join the group.”

Scott and Brown have a tiny disagreement over what ingredient has made the team successful over the years. Scott credits considering himself “lucky” to have “found a crop of young players who have done well.” Brown said she believes “the common denominator over all these years is Scott’s devotion to the team and his ability to take a group of students and move them forward” that has led to West’s success.

Normal Community West High School’s chess team belongs to a league, the Central Illinois High School Chess League, which has 13 member schools belonging to it, Scott informed. That league has member schools stretching from Danville to Brimfield, he said.

Brown said anybody who isn’t from here “continues to be shocked over how chess is embedded in Bloomington-Normal. It has just become part of the fabric of Unit 5 schools. We have elementary schools each with 80-plus kids in chess club. There’s no other club that can compete with that.”

Scott said those numbers grow because kids bring their friends with them when they come to a chess club function.

Brown has a point about shock teams from outside this area must experience when they first confront and then drop a competition to teams from this area like Normal West in such a sport. No doubt, it probably is a little jarring. But as with any sport, those teams will recover from being stunned by teams in this area and will work to improve against them.

That’s where Kafer’s and Scott’s skills in coaching the sport come into play. They and the students they coach will need to continue doing as they have been doing for the last eight years to stay sharp enough to do as well at State Competition as they did this year. These coaches and the kids have earned all the credit, honors, and awards this victory have been bestowed upon them.

U-High Finished 66th: As for how other local teams finished at State Chess, the team from Bloomington High School finished 54th, while University High’s team finished 66th.

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