The Idea Was To Keep Kids Safe After School. Now They're Chess Champions

May 9, 2017
Originally published on May 9, 2017 9:31 pm

When Ted Komada started teaching 14 years ago, he says he didn't know how to manage a classroom and was struggling to connect with students.

He noticed a couple of days after school that a group of kids would get together to play chess. "I said, 'I know how to play chess. Let me go show these kids how to do it.'"

So he went across the hall and did nothing, he says, but lose game after game. "And that's when I remember being like, 'Oh, there's knowing how the pieces move, and there's playing chess.'"

Now playing chess is a big deal at Killip Elementary in Flagstaff, Ariz., where Komada is a teacher and coaches the chess team. The whole program started as a safe place for kids to come after school — a diversion — and this week dozens of those students are getting ready to head out to Nashville, Tenn., to compete with about 5,000 other young people at the SuperNationals of chess. The competition only happens every four years and the last time the team went, they placed a team at third in the nation.

Back then, Skylar Boyce was just 6 years old. Now he's 10, still playing chess, and says he can't wait to go again this year and place first.

He says chess is fun and it teaches you stuff: "Stuff that helps you in the real world. Like for trades. You always want to trade fairly in chess and you always need to trade fairly in the world," he says. "You don't want to, like, give someone a car if they're gonna give you $5."

Speaking of money, the team raised $35,000 so all the kids who qualified could go.

Komada says chess gives him, and his students, control. The school has the highest number of kids from low-income families in Flagstaff. Police frequent the area. Two months ago, a young man was shot just down the street during chess practice.

"You decide whether you want to attack queen side, king side, attack with a knight or a bishop," Komada says. "I love chess because it makes me feel powerful because I'm in control. I mean there's not too many things in life that you have complete control over. Chess is one of them."

"Coach Komada, here, likes to teach them that you want to think about your move before you do it," says Michelle Pedilla, who has two sons who play chess. For her sons, she sees those lessons translate into the real world. "Like, 'Should I do that? It might get me in trouble.'"

Pedilla gets emotional when she thinks about the team walking into a competition as a "big ol' blue group," referring to the school colors. She'll be there this week with them in Nashville and she says, "I'm very much a proud mother."

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The poorest school in Flagstaff, Ariz., has become a big winner in chess. Forty-six elementary school students have earned a place at the SuperNationals of chess later this week in Nashville, Tenn. They'll join 5,000 other kids from around the country. From member station KJZZ, Laurel Morales tells us how the team got there.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Coach Ted Komada is a big reason. He's coaching 50 young kids, ages 5 to 11, in a classroom after school. A wall of trophies looms over them. You don't hear much in the classroom because chess is a quiet sport. The kids concentrate on their next moves.

TED KOMADA: You've got a rating. Your rating is a number that says this is how good you are. Your job is to make that rating wrong.

MORALES: Komada burns enough energy for all of them as he paces up and down the rows and spouts strategy.

KOMADA: Be better than that rating.

MORALES: Fourteen years ago, Komada was a new teacher. He says he didn't know how to manage a classroom and was struggling to connect with students.

KOMADA: And I saw this group of kids playing chess a couple of days after school. And I said, oh, I know how to play chess. Let me go show these kids how to do it and, you know, build those relationships. So I went across the hall one day after school and did nothing but lose game after game after game. And that's when I remember - I mean, like, oh, it's - there's knowing how the pieces move, and there's playing chess.

MORALES: He says he learned that from his students. It's clear Komada really believes in these kids, and he sees chess as more than just a game.

KOMADA: You decide whether you want to attack queen's side, king's side, attack with a knight or a bishop. I love chess because it makes me feel powerful because I'm in control. I mean there's not too many things in life that you have complete control over. Chess is one of them.

MORALES: And that lets the children who go to Killip Elementary really thrive. The school has the highest number of kids from low-income families in Flagstaff. Police are frequently called to the neighborhood for drug and gang activity. A month ago, a young man was shot just down the street during chess practice. The chess team started out as a diversion for students after school for kids like 10-year-old Skyler Boyce.

SKYLER BOYCE: It's fun, and you get to learn stuff that helps you in the real world. Like for trades, you always want to trade fairly in chess, and you always need to trade fairly in the world 'cause you don't want to, like, give someone a car when they're going to give you $5.

MORALES: Yeah, for trades and stuff like focus and problem-solving skills. This will be the team's third time to the Olympics of chess, or SuperNationals, as it's called, in Nashville. The last time they went, the Killip Cougars placed third in the nation. Back then, Skyler was 6.

SKYLER: It was tons of kids.

MORALES: This year, he wants to place first. That's Michelle Pedilla's hope, too.

MICHELLE PEDILLA: They look two, three, four moves ahead, not just one move.

MORALES: She has two sons who play chess and gets emotional when she thinks about the team walking into a competition.

PEDILLA: To travel with these guys and to see us come as this big ol' blue group (laughter) with blue shirts (laughter)...

MORALES: You must be proud.

PEDILLA: I am. I very much am, proud mother, yeah.

MORALES: This year, the Killip Cougars raised $35,000, so all who qualify will walk into SuperNationals on May 11. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Morales in Flagstaff.

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