KES students playing chess

Pointing to his opponent’s pieces on the chess board in front of him, 4th grader Tucker Casey explains how he won his first match during last week’s Chess Club meeting in the Kalama Elementary School (KES) Cafeteria.

“So what I did was, I took this piece, and then my rook was right here, and his king was right there, so I got him by moving here,” he said, motioning through each step.

Tucker is one of more than 40 students participating in the school’s Chess Club - an after school, ASB-supported activity that launched last year. Meetings were originally held in the school library, but the club quickly outgrew that space.

“We have almost double the amount of students this year compared to last year,” said Tanaja Gravina, a KES parent-volunteer and lead organizer of the Chess Club. “This has honestly been one of the most fulfilling volunteering positions I’ve ever had. I did not know that this many kids would find so much joy and excitement playing chess.”

The club’s rapid growth has taken KES Principal Billina Dolezal by surprise as well.

“We had no idea that the club would be such a draw for students, and more are asking to join every week,” said Billina. “It’s wonderful to see students engrossed in the game.”

Asked what she enjoys most about running the club, Tanaja said it’s when she gets to see students take the concepts they’ve learned in chess and apply them to other aspects of life.

“I see these kids in a lot of different activities,” she said. “I see them on the soccer field, learning to acknowledge the impact of their own actions: ‘if I do this, then the other person might respond like this.’ So whether it’s during emotional or social peer group interactions, the students are using these concepts in so many different ways. It just makes me feel proud.”

The club is open to K-5 students at all skill levels, including those who have never played chess. As the school year progresses, Tanaja plans to group students based on their knowledge of the game, so that the beginners can focus on understanding the rules, and the more advanced students can get familiar with competitive play and how to compete in tournaments.

Looking further down the road, Billina said there are plans to bring an official chess tournament to the school, and Tanaja noted that she’d like to eventually expand the program to middle school and high school.

“I already have three or four older students who are coming over to play at the elementary,” said Tanaja. “They’re ready to branch out and push it to the next level.”

But for now, the focus is on elementary students, many of whom are discovering the game for the first time. For others, it’s just fun to spend a little more time with friends.

“This is my first day coming, but I like it,” said 4th grader Hazel Smith during last week’s meeting. “I’ve played chess before - my friend taught me how to play.”

When asked if she plans to come back to Chess Club, Hazel's answer was a resounding, “YES!”

The Kalama Elementary School Chess Club meets every Friday afternoon from 3 to 4 pm. Adults who are interested in volunteering are asked to contact the school office.