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Check Out the Chess Champs

Ben Krause gets nervous before most chess matches, and he was all the more so when playing for the Maryland elementary school championship.

It didn’t help when he held out his hand to wish an opponent luck before one match, only to have his opponent stab him in the palm of his hand with a pen.

Krause, a fifth-grader at Cold Spring Elementary, tried to focus on the match and zone out his rival’s sedentary “victory dance” late in the match.

“He was trying to goof off and make me too angry and nervous to win,” said Krause.

The ploy failed – Krause won the match, and Cold Spring took the state K-5 title in the Maryland Elementary School Championships at Stevensville on April 12. It was the second consecutive year Cold Spring took the state title.

“It feels really good,” said fourth-grader Jesse Freeman. “It was pretty cool, because I was with my whole team, and we were up against the best players in the state.”

INDIVIDUALLY, Krause finished in a tie for second place, and was ranked third statewide by tiebreaker scoring. Three of his teammates finished in a tie for fourth in the state – fifth-grader William Bartlett (ninth on tiebreaker), and fourth-graders Freeman (sixth) and Erik Agard (tenth). All the top 10 finishers received trophies.

Each competitor in the elementary championships played five matches, receiving points for a win or a draw, and each school’s score was the total of its top four scorers.

Between matches, there was often a half-hour of downtime.

“Most of us were playing warmup games with our teammates, and a lot of the people played basketball,” said Agard.

Phil Krause, Ben’s father and coach of the Cold Spring team, stresses that the poor sportsmanship his son experienced is a rare exception to the norm in competitive chess. It’s not normally a contact sport, and many friendships develop in the regional and statewide tournaments. “You would think that two kids playing under orders to be quiet would be in a solitary situation,” he said, “but the kids develop an actual camaraderie.”

AFTER THEIR trip across the Chesapeake, seven members will travel to the National Elementary Championships in Nashville, Tenn. May 8-11.

“That’s going to be a tough competition,” said Phil Krause. “Regardless of how they do, they’re going to have a great time. … Getting better involves winning and losing, [and] even if they lose, there’s still 4 million kids in their grade across the U.S., so that puts them in the top 99.99 percent of kids their age.”

“The kids are very good at chess, but I think they have a lot of perspective on the game,” he continued.

Like Michael Jordan, Ben Krause retired temporarily from his game. He learned how to play from his father when he was 3 years old, but stopped playing two years later with few opponents his age. It was not until third grade after transferring into Cold Spring that Ben began playing again after he joined the school team.

He finished first in the state elementary tournament last year, and tied for first in the National Youth Action Chess Championship in Rockford, Ill. last year.

Agard has been playing since he was 5, and began competing last year.

“When I started playing chess, I was no match for my dad, but now I’ve beaten him five times,” said Agard, who is teaching his mother to play with recorded moves he used in the state championship.

Freeman learned to play at the age of 4 from his mother, and joined the Cold Spring team after transferring from Bannockburn this year. “It sounded like a neat opportunity to play in some tournaments,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of good games, and I’ve also made a lot of stupid moves.”

ELEMENTARY school competitors are ranked under the same system the U.S. Chess Federation uses to rank adult players. Players accumulate points for wins, weighted according to the rank of their opponents. Agard was thrilled to beat an opponent who was ranked 400 points higher than he was.

Players also receive awards for performances above their rankings. Cold Spring’s Jed Tan was awarded for finishing at the top among players ranked under 1000, while teammate Josh Marshall was the top under 600.

Tan will travel with the team to Nashville for the national championships.

“There’s going to be very tough people there, but I think we’re going to do pretty well,” he said. Tan competed against a player with a rating almost twice as high as his own at states.