By Reggie Ellis
As the title of the 1993 movie suggests, the search for Bobby Fischer continues to this day. While the whereabouts of the chess phenom turned recluse remain a mystery, the world is still waiting for the next Bobby Fischer to be found. He, or she, may be right here in the Central Valley.
More than 160 students from elementary through high school seniors continued their journey to be chess masters at the Chess for Kids tournament on Saturday in Farmersville. The tournament is organized by Allan Fifield who began Chess for Kids in 1992. While working for Jostens, Fifield began teaching chess to 28 elementary students after the company adopted a Goshen school.
"I started playing in the fifth grade because I was the smallest kid in the neighborhood and needed something to be successful at," said the now 6-foot-1-inch and broad-bodied Fifield.
Today, Chess for Kids holds seven tournaments in Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties. He said in 1999, Hanford hosted the organization's largest tournament with more than 250 students. Students from 15 schools throughout the area, such as Snowden Elementary School in Farmersville, compete against students from other schools on an individual and team basis. Fifield said students enjoy the teamwork aspect because they don't have to be the best player to help their school win.
Farmersville has hosted a tournament for the last four years. Terry Nardiello, a seventh grade history teacher at Farmersville Junior High School, said the school has informally had a chess club for the last 15 years. He said it gives students something to do during the gray, foggy days of winter. Typically students will play five games during tournaments. Each game has a one-hour time limit and there is a minimum half-hour break in between games.
"That's a nine hour day for many of these kids," Nardiello said.
In today's rapid-fire video game violence, it may seem surprising that students would sit through a nine-hour day. However, Nardiello said students enjoy the competition and team spirit.
"A lot of them play chess on-line, which is how the get introduced to the game,” Nardiello said. “But there is nothing more interactive than a face-to-face competition. You still get to 'take out' the enemy but on a much more personal level than a video game."
Nardiello spoke of the educational value of playing chess. In addition to obvious strategic and pattern skills that can be applied in mathematics, chess helps stimulate creative thinking and problem solving.
"They have to come up with more than one solution to a problem," Nardiello said. "You can apply that to anything in life. It teaches you how to think things through and sort things out."
Gicel Angeles, 9, of Farmersville said she had been playing chess for about a year.
"It is better than a video game because you are always learning," she said.
Gicel's Snowden Elementary school classmate Kennedy Camacho said he had been playing for two years and liked the team aspect of the tournament.
"It isn't as exciting as playing video games but it's a lot of fun," Camacho said.
Hans Born, a math instructor and chess club founder at Monache High School, said chess crosses cultural, gender and age barriers that prevent open competition in many other activities.
"There is no advantage to being stronger, faster more educated or being older. Chess is a great equalizer,” Born said. “This is something these kids can play for their entire life."
Born said in 1991, three chess players from Porterville schools were in the state finals. Bartlett Middle School's team won the Northern California State Championship in 1991 and 2000.
"It is great to see these kids from the country compete and defeat kids in the Bay Area whose parents have spent a lot of money on lessons," Born said.
At the Farmersville tournament, there was even a preschooler playing against students in first and second grade and elementary students playing high school students, which is not uncommon. Born said most students become interested in chess after watching "Searching for Bobby Fischer" with their parents. The film is about a 7-year-old boy who plays chess at a masterful level without any instruction. He is discovered by a chess tutor who considers him to be the next Bobby Fischer - who, in 1956, defeated grandmaster Donald Byrne in his first open tournament at the age of 13.
Born said seeing the movie leads to casual games with their parents and/or relatives followed by playing people over the Internet and finally wanting more advanced face-to-face competition.
"The first time I talk to a student about chess I tell them, 'By the end of the year you will be beating your parents or they will refuse to play you,'" Born said. "It's all about how much you practice."
However, Born said in two to three years most students stop playing chess as other, more social activities fill their days in high school. He said he normally has 65-70 students playing chess in elementary school, which dwindles down to 25 players in high school. Typically, he said boys stick with chess longer than girls do. By the time they reach high school boys make up about 95 percent of student players.
Money for the tournaments and to supply the chess clocks, boards and computer rating system come from tournament fees. It costs $8 for advance registration and $12 at the door.
Fifield also offers afterschool chess lessons that last two hours a day for six to eight weeks and a chess camp, where students learn to play chess for a two hours a day five days. The camp reviews basic chess rules and then progresses to tactics and tournament rules for all ages and novice, intermediate and advanced levels. The cost is $64 or $15 a day. The camp will be held from 9:30-11:30 a.m. on April 5-9 at the Clovis Recreation Center, located at 3495 S. Clovis Ave.
Future tournaments this year will be held at Manchester GATE in Fresno on Feb. 21, Great Western School in Reedley on March 6 and La Jolla Middle School in Visalia on April 24.
For more information on Chess for Kids or beginning a chess club at a local school call Fifield at 734-2784 or visit the website at www.knowchess.com. E-mails can be sent to [email protected].