When 11 students from Greenbriar West Elementary School in Chantilly headed to Florida in November, the destination wasn’t Walt Disney World or the beach. The big draw was the National K-12 Chess Championships, where almost 1,300 kids sat in a hotel ballroom for hours planning their next moves.
For Vivian Cao-Dao, Revanth Vejju and Ryan Xu, all that concentration paid off. Their Florida souvenirs include plaques, medals and a huge trophy for placing first among 20 fifth-grade teams.
The kids, who are part of Greenbriar West’s chess club, admitted that the competition in Orlando was much tougher than the local tournaments they attend.
“There was a lot more strain,” said Revanth, who is 10. “A lot of pressure.”
“I was thinking, ‘Do I have the patience for this?’ ” added Vivian, 11.
Ryan, 10, who also came in second among fifth-grade individual competitors, said that sometimes he had trouble focusing during the seven 90-minute matches he played during the three-day tournament.
“I just try to ignore all the noise,” he said.
But the kids all said that chess is a lot of fun. “Just playing it made me happy,” Revanth said of why he joined Greenbriar West’s after-school chess club in second grade.
More than 200 of the school’s 1,000 students are members of the club, the school’s most popular activity. Second- through sixth-graders show up Thursday afternoons for lessons with chess coach Paul Swaney and matches against fellow club members. About three dozen advanced players get their own session Monday afternoons.
Swaney works with the chess players on problem-solving and strategy. As he reviewed a famous match with a small group of advanced players recently, Swaney made sure the kids had thought through their suggestions for what the next move should be.
“How would you explain this move to a player who is not as good as you?” he asked.
Swaney also coaches clubs at a school in Vienna and two in Arlington, but he said Greenbriar West is like no other. “This school has such a chess culture,” he said. “Some kids have their own chess coaches.”
Swaney also counsels the players about long tournaments. When they spot friends, they are often tempted to play more chess in between official matches. “But if you’re not rested, you’re not going to play well,” he told them.
This advice will be especially important as club members go to the U.S. Supernationals in Nashville, Tennessee, in April. The tournament, held once every four years, is expected to draw about 5,500 kids.
And one player will be heading even farther from home in December. Third-grader Aasa Dommalapati will travel to the Persian Gulf country of the United Arab Emirates to the invitation-only World Youth Championships. She went to a similar competition in November in Slovenia with 89 other U.S. players.
Aasa said she enjoyed playing against kids from places around the world, including Hungary, Bolivia and Azerbaijan. But for the 8-year-old, who didn’t bring home a trophy from Slovenia, one thing about chess is true no matter where she plays.
“It’s more fun if you win,” she said with a smile.