A deafening silence settled over the Hermiston High School library as 20 kids stared at chess boards, plotting their next moves.
The Region 23/24 chess tournament drew elementary schoolers from Heppner, and middle and high schoolers from Hermiston, all who are trying to qualify for the state tournament. The tournament is March 9 and 10.
After a high-drama three-way tie for the top high school spot, all three students will move onto state. The winners were senior Gabriel Gomez and sophomores Isaac Bonifer and Jeremy Bowden. Each boy won four out of the five matches they played.
At the middle and elementary school level, the top five scorers will attend the state tournament as a team. The winners for the middle school level are Luke Gray, Zane Herron, Nathan Booher, Dillon Herron and Elijah Robinson.
The elementary school winners are Owen Guerra, Nicholas Wenberg, Claire Lindsay, Jaime Cavan, and John Lindsay and Maya Payne, who tied for the third-highest score.
As Hermiston High School sophomores Neveah Cubbage and Kylie Barker waited to start their final round of the day, they reflected on their games so far. The biggest challenge, Cubbage said, is that with a fairly small group of people, they have to find new ways to beat the same opponents.
“If you play a lot of the same people, they know what your moves are, and they can figure out how to beat you,” Barker said.
But both agreed that their favorite aspect has been meeting new people. The two became friends when they joined chess club several years ago.
Club advisor Delia Fields said there are anywhere between 30 and 40 people in chess club, encompassing all three secondary schools. The team practices twice a week, and students get the chance to play opponents of varying skill levels, and get assistance from adult volunteers.
Fields said the chess club received a boost this year, when it became an official “Chess for Success” team. Joining a group of schools all over Oregon and one in Washington, the organization started in 1992 as a way to teach chess to at-risk youth, to help them develop critical thinking and problem solving skills.
“It’s allowed us to go from a small, strong program to a larger strong program,” Fields said. “The kids aren’t hamstrung by registration fees.”
A group of about 40 elementary schoolers from Heppner made the trip to Hermiston. The only elementary school in the area with a Chess for Success program, students have found a lot they like about the game.
“I like the ‘touch-move’ rule,” said fifth-grader Jaime Cavan, noting a rule that if a player touches a piece, they have to move that piece. “Sometimes my opponent messes up.”
Claire Lindsay, a third grader, said one of the challenges has been playing chess under pressure.
“When I went to state, it was really hard,” she said. “I saw that I was going to be able to get a draw, but I didn’t win,” she said.
For some students, chess has quickly become a favorite pastime. Though they were done competing for the day, Luke Gray and Zane Herron, sixth graders at Armand Larive Middle School, sat with a chessboard outside the library and played a practice game.
Both had won four of their five tournaments.
“I just love to play chess,” Gray said.
“It’s a nice, relaxing game,” Herron said. “It’s a good way to free your mind and focus. I believe it makes you more self-aware.”
Gray has been playing for several years, and learned from his father.
“My dad’s a trucker. And when he was on the road, we would play online chess on chess.com,” he said.
MaryAnn Elguezabal, the Heppner chess coach, said many of her students come in with little to no chess experience. The Chess for Success program provides lesson plans, and she relies on volunteers to help teach.
Both Elguezabal and Fields said they have seen changes in their students outside of the chess game.
“We’re a safe landing place,” Fields said. “They learn social skills, real thoughtful and purposeful actions.”
Elguezabal said she has seen an improvement in patience and manners from many students.
“They learn that everything you do has a consequence,” she said. “Once you’ve moved that chess piece, it’s moved.”