A busload of young chess wizards from a Brooklyn school left for Nashville last Wednesday, and returned to their school Monday afternoon with a three-tiered, first-place trophy from the United States Chess Federation's National Elementary Championship.
“We won! I feel so excited that we won first place, especially because we beat a middle school,” said Helen Xue, 11, a fifth grader on the team. “When I found out that we won, I jumped up and down, and then later we had a celebration. We had a nice dinner and we ate lots of ice cream.”
Fourteen students from Public School 503: The School of Discovery in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a Title I school, won first place Sunday in the “K-6 Under 1,000” category, which falls within the intermediate level of the tournament.
They are the second New York City public school team — also from Brooklyn — to win a national championship this season by beating older students. In April the chess team at Intermediate School 318 Eugenio Maria de Hostos in Williamsburg topped its already-impressive record by winning the National High School Championships.
The P.S. 503 students, who are in the second through fifth grades, started competing only a year ago.
Matthew Silverman, 29, a fourth-grade teacher at the school and a founder of ChessMates, the school’s team, said he was still in shock that his students could pull off a first-place victory with so little experience.
“We started from nothing," Mr. Silverman said. "The kids really took control of it. They go home and they want to study tactics. This is their passion.
“This is the first year of competing, and they worked so hard,” he said.
Mr. Silverman, who started the club with his fellow teachers Carlos Graupera and Rachel Hsieh, traveled with the students more than 16 hours to compete in the national tournament, where they beat out 49 other schools in their section.
The team’s initial goal was to raise $5,000 so that they could travel with eight students. “But we ended up raising $12,000 with the help of our school, local businesses, parents and Chess in the Schools,” Mr. Graupera said.
The extra money allowed 20 students in all to go, some of whom also competed in the “K-5 Under 900” category, also on the intermediate level.
“Most of our students are lower working class. They’re not coming from an affluent background. Our school is primarily an immigrant population, and the students are a mix of Asian, Hispanic and Arabic children,” he said. “The kids are incredibly enthusiastic. They’re eager to learn, and they love supporting each other.”
The chess club started out as a lunchtime gathering in mid-2010 with eight members, and quickly grew into a team of 45.
When its founders saw how enthusiastic the students were about the game, they started entering the team in tournaments organized by Chess in the Schools.
“They sent us a very experienced coach to work with the kids," Mr. Graupera said. "Once they saw how serious the kids were about the game, they and our principal encouraged us to enter into the nationals.”
Once the team qualified for the tournament, the practice sessions picked up.
“I played for an hour almost every day,” Helen said. “We really wanted to win.”
Last Friday, before the tournament started that morning, the students woke at 7 o'clock and met in a hotel conference room to warm up their brains and discuss strategy for the seven grueling games they would play throughout the weekend.
“Our longest game lasted over three hours on Sunday,” Mr. Silverman said. “We told them, ‘The more patient you are, the better you’re going to be.’”
The advice paid off. The students won the “K-6 Under 1,000” section with 22 points, beating the Rockway Middle School from Miami by only half a point.
“Playing chess has an allure for children. They’re enticed by the way the game looks and the mystery of how the pieces move,” Mr. Graupera said. “The game is about critical thinking, problem solving and time management. This is the most competitive experience a child can have. They also learn to celebrate the victories that their teammates have.”
Anthony Pirro, 34, the school’s assistant principal, who also traveled with the team, now has a serious decision to make: where to display the trophy. He also has to help prepare for a congratulatory visit by Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
“They’ve been racking up trophies as they go along,” he said proudly. “I’m kind of in shock. There were screams, cheers, high fives all around. We were jumping up and down for joy. I don’t think they fully understand yet what they’ve accomplished.”