By Randy Youngblood
Franklin County Advocate
Riley Middleton, a third grade student at Franklin Lower Elementary, rode with his mother. They followed a big yellow school bus from late afternoon well into the star-filled east Mississippi night of Friday, April 22. Riley and his mother were part of a caravan headed to the rolling hills of Starkville, to the sleepy campus of Mississippi State University, along with 61 members of Riley’s chess team. They were from even more -rural Franklin County (population 8000), which lies some 20 miles east of the historic Mississippi River town of Natchez. Although it was his first tournament, Riley returned to Bude the next day as the undefeated leader (5-0) of the Mississippi State Chess K-3 championship team from Franklin County Lower Elementary. His mom, Kim Middleton says Riley’s response to his success was simple and clear: “He says he loves chess and wants to play more.” Such a humble response from a Franklin County chess player is not surprising. They play to win, but for the intrinsic love of the game that has been fostered in them over the past eight months by their instructors, Dr. Jeff Bulington and Mr. Bobby Poole.
Riley’s first place trophy is one of many captured by Franklin County players at Mississippi State University that day. Schools from around Mississippi fielded teams of four or more students in an effort to claim state championships in six categories: K-1, K-3, K-5, K-6. K-8, and K-12. Franklin County was competing there for the first time ever. At the end of the day, the chess tournament room in Colvard Hall erupted with cheers several times as FC claimed five of the six grade-level state championships. To top it all, Franklin County Upper Elementary—unleashing a feisty squad of 4th and 5th graders!—won the high school division, against far more experienced players from schools with long chess traditions.
How could it be? Surely that was the question many teams from across the state were asking. When asked about the mercurial rise of FC chess, Jeff Bolhuis, Director of the MS State Scholastic Chess Association, had this to say, “It is a fantastic accomplishment to have 60+ players go from novice to tournament champion in a matter of months. A couple of folks in the Memphis area told me when Dr. B first became involved in Meadville that this was going to be a great program, but the speed and extent of the kids’ development has been amazing.” Bolhuis also noted that to his knowledge no elementary team had ever won the high school division. Jackson Prep previously had dominated the division for 12 of the past 14 years.
Chess, never before formally taught or competitively played in Franklin County, has already impacted the lives of many children, parents, and educators in a profound way in these eight months. In June of 2015, Bobby Poole looked out his window to find a tall fellow from Memphis moving in next door. Fast forward to January of 2016. Mr. Poole retired from the Mississippi-based cell phone company CSpire and became an assistant chess coach, having become enmeshed in the chess program right from its inception. After Saturday’s successes he posted on Facebook, “This has been an unbelievable year so far. A year ago, I could never have believed that any of this would even be possible. Even when Dr. B told me it WAS going to happen, I had to trust that he knew what he was talking about because I had no point of reference. Obviously, he has been spot on in all of his assessments of our program, and today’s performance was absolutely no fluke.” Chris Kent, Interim Superintendent of Franklin County Schools and father of Zack Kent—a 4th grader who helped lead FC Upper Elementary to the state high school championship—said this: “I am so proud of the entire FC Chess Team. They have proved once again that students from Franklin County can compete with students from anywhere in the country.”
Likewise, former World Champion Susan Polgar (whose introductory chess text lines the windows of the FC chess room and can now be found in homes across the county) shared these thoughts: “Congratulations to the all the young players in Franklin County for their remarkable success at the State Championships! Their incredible success further proves that when young people are being taught the right way, combined with hard work / dedication, in addition to the support from parents / teachers, success will happen at the highest level. This is just the beginning. I am confident that not only will these young players continue to win on the chess board, chess will help them excel in school and in life.”
Leigh Ann Bein, assistant principal at Franklin Upper who was instrumental in creating the chess program in Franklin County Schools, and whose son Will plays for the state champion middle school team, says “Students are lured in with wonderful chess stories and kept there with stimulating challenges and logic. It’s a fantastic world in our chess room.”
Though many around the chess program have much to say about him, Dr. B’s words are few. Regarding the MS Team Tournament he stated, “The students were very motivated to prepare for their first ever team state championship. The results of the tournament are encouraging, but we have a very long way to go.” These words are characteristic of Dr. B, whose vision of FC Chess goes beyond Mississippi or even national borders.
Source: Franklin County Advocate
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– GM Susan Polgar