Chess teaching three sibling phenoms life lessons
By MICHELLE BEARDEN | The Tampa Tribune
Published: November 11, 2012
Updated: November 11, 2012 – 12:T
TAMPA — When a dispute erupts in the Simon family, the three brothers know only one way to settle the score.
They play chess.
“It kinda stops the arguing,” says Ankwon, 11. “With chess, you have to really concentrate.”
They must do a lot of concentrating in their Clair-Mel City household.
In less than two years, Ankwon, Antonio, 13, and Anthony, 7 — all relative newcomers to the game — have collected 33 trophies and 10 medals in regional and state chess tournaments.
“Highly unusual,” says their great-uncle, Ted McNair, who also is their coach and mentor. “To have three in one family is something special.”
McNair, retired from the Air Force and a sixth-degree black belt in karate, knows his chess. He’s been playing the game since 1963, when he discovered it while attending Middleton High School. At 5-foot-5 and 110 pounds, he was looking for an after-school activity where he could feel comfortable.
“I was too small for football, too short for basketball, too uncoordinated for baseball,” he says. Chess became his sport of choice. In his opinion, it’s mental gymnastics.
A former educator with extensive inner-city public and private school teaching experience, McNair now uses those skills to help cultivate future chess players. He works part-time at Academy Prep in Tampa as the chess team coach and volunteers throughout the community.
He also teaches a free instructional class from 10 a.m. to noon on the second Saturday of every month at the 78th Street Community Library in Palm River.
Academy Prep headmaster Lincoln Tamayo says interest in chess at the school is directly related to McNair, who he calls a model for “love, character, generosity, strength and intellect, all rolled into one outstanding human being.”
“When I say this, I’m not commenting on Ted’s physical appearance, but he’s the Yoda of our campus,” Tamayo says. “Our kids constantly look to him for the sage advice.”
McNair can spot chess talent quickly. And nobody was more surprised – or proud – than he was when his trio of grandnephews became adept at chess so quickly. As African-Americans, they’re breaking barriers by winning tournaments typically dominated by whites, Hispanics and Asians.
At the end of the month, the brothers will head to Orlando for the 2012 National K-12 Chess Championships, which will put them in competition with students from all over the country. They hope to add to their growing collection of awards.
“What they’ve accomplished in such a short time is really amazing,” says McNair, 64. “But you got to give them credit. They were diligent about learning the game and they dedicated themselves to it. Now they’re a force to be reckoned with.
“I think you’ll be hearing their names in the chess world for some time.”
It’s a world gaining popularity among young people – especially in Florida.
“It’s not just for nerds. And if it was, that’s OK, because (Microsoft founder) Bill Gates has made being a nerd cool,” say Willard Taylor, president of the Florida Scholastic Chess League.
“Coach T,” as everyone knows him, oversees regional and state championships. He says Florida played a pivotal role in establishing chess in schools across the country: Lakeland is where it all began 25 years ago.
“No one believed we could teach elementary kids the game,” Taylor says. “But we’re starting children as young as 4 or 5, and it’s been a huge success.”
Florida is home to about 30,000 chess-playing youths who take part in clubs, camps and weekend tournaments held in churches, schools and community recreation centers. Tampa is part of the western region, which claims 6,500 kids from Sarasota to Ocala.
And parents, listen up. Coach T says chess is a road to good grades and, possibly, a college scholarship. He says 17 local students are now attending elite Boston-area universities such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The captain of the United States Military Academy at West Point’s chess team came out of Tampa.
Monica Gadson, mother of Academy Prep chess player Jac’Quan Gadson, 11, says she has seen some remarkable changes in her son since he took up the game. His math grades have gone up considerably, and he’s thinking more logically.
“Chess has so many benefits that I never considered,” she says. “Like getting your kids to look at the whole picture when they make decisions. That’s just like chess – you have to look at the whole board.”
Taylor says Gadson gets it.
“It’s not about finding the next Bobby Fischer,” Taylor says, referring to the game’s most famous player. “What we’ve learned is that kids who play chess develop self-discipline, self-respect and good social skills. They have great concentration and problem-solving skills.
Taking a two-hour test in class is nothing for our chess players. They can sit for hours in deep strategy working on their moves.”
Taylor, 55, has been playing the game for 50 years. While chess is his passion, it’s also related to his profession. He and his wife run a Tampa trophy company that makes the decorative souvenirs for winners in all school sports – including chess.
He has seen enough winners in his lifetime to know that the triple-threat Simon brothers are out of the ordinary.
“You might see two good players in a family, but three? That’s rare,” he says.
She’s the mother of the three boys. She says they started by playing chess on the computer, then began observing her brother and her Uncle Ted play endless hours. By the time they got their first board, they were fully immersed.
“All of them are gifted students,” says Jeffrey, a certified nursing assistant. “And I’m going to credit chess. It’s done them a world of good.”
It affects other aspects of their lives as well. Anthony, a second-grader at Ippolito Elementary in Riverview, uses chess strategies in picking out his clothes in the morning. He lays out three or four different pieces, and considers each one to get the right match.
“Everything has to be perfect,” she says.
That strategizing has served Anthony well. McNair recalls a recent match where the youngster was placed in a competition with a senior in high school. The older boy was snickering at the prospect of going up against such a small-fry opponent. It was apparent he thought the match would be short, sweet and very one-sided.
“Once the round started, it was quite evident that he was in the fight of his life (with Anthony),” McNair recalls. After the senior lost, “he shook hands, as is customary, but defeat was written across his face.”
Anthony aspires to be a grandmaster one day, the highest title awarded to a chess player. Until then, he intends to keep mowing down his opponents, starting with his brothers.
His signature play? “When I put someone in checkmate,” he says, sounding older than his years. “That’s when you got a piece in jeopardy and they can’t move anywhere.”
Full article here.
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