The near silence of the Kazen Middle School cafeteria was interrupted Saturday afternoon only by the occasional squeaking of yellow plastic cafeteria seats as focused students hunched over chess boards. Every once in a while, a player would murmur “check” or thunk down a game piece in a new spot.

The rhythmic thunking and squeaking created a soundtrack for gameplay at the 24th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Chess Tournament, held for the first time at Kazen Middle School in South San Antonio Independent School District. The event was part of San Antonio’s DreamWeek 2020.

More than 70 students from across the city and beyond arrived Saturday morning. In years past, chess players have traveled from as far as Laredo and Mexico to enter the tournament. This year, players ranged from elementary school age to high school, some so young they had to kneel on their seats to view the entire board.

Elven Chase, the event’s organizer and founder, started the tournament at Dorie Miller Elementary in San Antonio ISD almost a quarter-century ago. Chase began teaching his students chess to give them something to do after school and keep them out of trouble. As time went on, his group of players grew until a tournament seemed like the most logical next step.

Chase turned to his frequent chess opponent and fishing buddy Felix Fierros for help planning the tournament and ever since the two have overseen the event.

On Saturday morning around 11:15 a.m., the two began the 2020 tournament by laying out some ground rules. Chase explained the tournament would use the touch-move rule that requires a piece touched to be played if possible through a legal move.

Chess for Education Founder Elven Chase (center right) addresses players before the first round of the tournament.

At Fierros’ direction, players shook hands with one another and began their play for the first round of five scheduled matches. Each match could last up to an hour. A computer racked everyone’s record and factored in the match difficulty and opponents’ skill levels.

“That’s why your opponent’s win isn’t your loss,” Fierros said. “Your opponent gets points for how good you are and you might help them win the whole tournament.”

Less than two minutes into the first hour, some player pairs stood up, indicating their match was complete. Two by two, they approached a table where Fierros recorded the results and asked who won – black or white – and whether the pair shook hands at the end of the game. At the end of the day, an overall winner would be announced based on the points tabulated by the computer.

Students are asked to shake hands with their competitors and reset the playing board at the end of each game.

For many of the coaches present, this was a familiar scene. Jesus Noriega, sporting a black T-shirt with a chess knight emblazoned across the back, paced the room throughout the first hour. When students raised hands with questions, Noriega would approach to help the game proceed or make a judgment call.

Now in his 80s, Noriega began playing chess in the second grade. He’s coached teams for decades, but currently helps prepare young chess players at Little Flower Catholic School on San Antonio’s West Side and in Castroville.

Once students start playing chess, it can be hard to quit, Noriega said. A former student and player of his from Edgewood Junior High often accompanies him to chess tournaments, also pacing the room, offering help when needed.

As players thinned out in Saturday’s first match and games reached their conclusion, Noriega took a break, pausing to watch the remaining players.

“He has got to protect his queen if he wants to keep playing,” Noriega said, observing one of his students in the final stages of his match.

Langley Elementary School student Joaquin Gonzalez, 11, contemplates his next move during the first round of the tournament.

Watching the games unfold, Noriega often comments on which student appears likely to win and how close they are to taking an opponent’s queen.

When asked why they like chess, Noriega’s players from Little Flower Catholic School proudly proclaim that chess makes them smarter.

“I like it mostly because it makes you learn more outside the game,” said Diego, a 10-year-old who won his first match. “If you start playing, your brain starts growing, so you can learn more math and social studies.”

Jay, a third grader, was also victorious in the first round, but didn’t plan on keeping his strategy the same from round to round. He might have to play someone who sat next to him during a previous game and didn’t want them to catch on too quickly.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.