- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - As she huddled over the chess board, 10-year-old Hannah Catherine placed her hand on her king, pondering her next move. Her 7-year-old opponent calmly sat across the table, knowing his queen was within striking distance.

In swift moves, Isaiah Greenlee, a home-schooled student, trapped Catherine’s king along the side of the board with two rooks and a pawn, ending the match.

He and Catherine, a student at Belfair Elementary, rose, shook hands and headed for the gym’s lobby, where family, friends and teachers greeted students as they finished their first of five matches in the recent ChessMates Classic at Scotlandville Middle Pre-Engineering Magnet Academy.

The first-year tournament was a collaboration by the Foundation for East Baton Rouge School System, the Louisiana Scholastic Chess Association and Cajun Chess, with volunteers from City Year also helping out.

Current State Champion and National Master James Rousselle made a special appearance before the final round, speaking briefly to the students and handing out awards.

Cajun Chess officials said 127 students from 20 schools in kindergarten through the 12th grade registered for the competition.

The students included visitors from as far away as Houston, foundation member and Vice President Ted Firnberg said. He said eight local schools - five elementary and three middle schools - preregistered.

Some students who arrived early played practice matches while others talked with teammates, coaches and parents. But once the tournament kicked off, they were all business.

Some of the younger children playing against less experienced opponents would make their move, watch their opponent make a move, then erase the last move and show their opponent the move he or she should have made.

Firnberg said chess is one of two areas, robotics being the other, that foundation members prioritized in an effort to promote artistic and intellectual growth in students.

“For us, it was a relatively obvious starting point,” Firnberg said. “Participation in chess in the early grades has shown to improve student achievement.”

The idea for chess in Baton Rouge schools came from foundation President Kathryn Kissam, who moved about six years ago from Richmond, Va., which had a scholastic chess league, to Baton Rouge, which did not.

Kissam heard complaints about the lack of chess in schools in Baton Rouge, so she wrote to the U.S. Chess Federation about starting a league in Baton Rouge.

The Chess Federation responded with a $10,000 grant, which Kissam said was matched by $10,000 from ExxonMobil.

The money was used to start gathering materials and educate teachers in summer learning sessions titled “Chess, Common Core and Critical Thinking.”

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