New faces flocking to chess


Sports editor

akota Middle School student Russell Murnen sits and stares at a black-and-white checkered chess board, studying every aspect, angle and impending result his next move brings with it.

You could hear a pin drop, which doesn’t happen a whole lot around verbose Murnen — his teacher says with a rye smile. Let’s just say the sixth-grader doesn’t mind chewin’ the fat with anybody that happens to come within earshot.

But the sport of chess brings out a different side of Murnen. He transforms himself into a stoic bastion of concentration, blocking out the world and turning his mind into a beehive of strategic thinking.

Murnen is just one of many students in Federal Way who are turning chess into something “cool” to do.

“I have been playing chess since the second grade,” Murnen said in a way that made it sound like an eternity. “My dad taught me how to play. I had a board in elementary class and learned how to move the pieces on the board.”

In just those four short years, Murnen has turned into a solid player, thanks a lot to the chess club programs offered at Federal Way schools.

“I can beat my dad now,” he said.

The centuries-old game is earning high marks in the classroom. About a dozen students gather in the Lakota library every Tuesday and Thursday for an hour of chess strategy and game play with the help of teachers Jon Higley and Chris Clark. The Lakota program is one of numerous clubs around the Federal Way school district promoting the game of chess. The Federal Way Public Academy, Kilo, Illahee, Sacajawea and Totem middle schools, as well as Federal Way High School, among others, have successful club teams.

“Anybody can be good at chess,” Clark said. “You just have to have a willingness to learn.”

Higley had been a teacher for 23 years at the elementary level before the district went to middle schools this year. He had taught chess in the elementary schools and started up the club at Lakota in the fall.

“I just thought that I would give it a try,” Higley said. “These kids are pretty strong in their skills. They can all beat me.”

Both Clark and Higley agree that the perception of the game of chess has changed. No longer are players thought of as the “nerds” of the school or “old geezers” sitting in the park enjoying retirement. At Lakota, the chess club includes kids from a bulk of the social cliques at the school.

“We have everything from the traditional good students to athletes,” Clark said. “Kids from every background do well. Chess is the great equalizer.”

For that reason, more schools are now teaching chess to children, not as an extracurricular activity, but as a valuable academic skill, such as history and math. Students can use chess much like an athlete. Things like self-discipline, focusing on a problem, the use of reasoning and the advantage of planning ahead present themselves through the game. Currently, about 30 countries formally teach chess as part of their curriculum due to its impact on critical thinking. America doesn’t, but chess advocates wouldn’t mind changing that.

Its popularity among children is on the rise, according to the United States Chess Federation, which says its membership has increased to 90,000 and more than half are kids.

Sixth-grader Katrina Blake, who plays soccer, basketball and hockey, has embraced chess and taken more of an athletic look at the game.

“I like competition,” she said. “I just want to play and get better. It’s kind of different (from sports). It’s not physical, but you have to think harder and pay attention.”

The mental stamina really comes into play when the kids attend all-day chess tournaments, like last month’s 2004 Washington Middle School/Junior High School State Team Championships. Kids played four one-hour matches with a lunch break in the middle.

“When you play the whole day you get kind of tired at the end of the day,” Blake said.

“The room where we are playing is perfectly quiet and the only thing you hear is everyone clicking their time clocks and writing down their moves in their notebooks,” Murnen said.

Out of the 24 teams participating in the state team championships, Federal Way made up four entries. The Federal Way Public Academy’s five-member “A” team was the high finisher in 10th. Higley and Clark’s Lakota team was right behind in 11th. The Academy’s “B” team wound up 16th and Totem Middle School finished in 17th.

The Federal Way High School chess team has also been a success during the 2003-04 tournament year. The Eagles’ recently defeated Auburn Riverside 4-1 to capture the Puget Sound Chess League crown. The team includes eight players, both boys and girls, and earned a spot at the chess state championships with 18 other teams.

The game of chess is quite a departure from what many other modern-day kids rely on for entertainment — video games and TV, for example. They enjoy the cerebral action of the game. Thinking two or three moves ahead, the players are forced to stay sharp mentally, according to Clark.

“I’ve seen a lot of improvement from these kids,” he said. “About halfway through the year, I got to a point where if I made a mistake, I’m going to lose. That is extremely frustrating from a competitive level, but really fantastic to see.”

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565,

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