LACOMB — Four years ago, there was no chess team at Lacomb School. But in the last three years the middle school students who spent their Monday afternoons learning the game have taken home first and second place in the middle school division during Chess for Success regional tournaments.
The most recent tournament was held Feb. 16 in Independence,
“They’re really talented kids who are enthusiastic about chess,” said coach Brandon Weist.
Weist started the chess club shortly after becoming a teacher, taking a page from his own fourth-grade teacher, Robert Keller.
“He was the first male teacher I ever had in Sweet Home and he had a chess club,” Weist said. Keller died in 2008.
“I had just graduated high school and thought teaching would be a fulfilling profession,” Weist said. “Lacomb is kind of isolated and I thought of Keller and the chess club and it’s been flourishing since.”
Weist is not the only instructor in the area to think that a chess club was a good idea.
Garfield Elementary in Corvallis started its own club this year and, after the Feb. 16 tournament, can call themselves champions. The team won first place in the elementary division.
Shannon Gabriel, a kindergarten teacher at Garfield who runs the school’s chess team, said the school had a smaller club in the past, but greatly expanded the program this year by getting involved in the Chess for Success program.
Starting in October, the club, which is free for students, met two days a week after school and has 35 kids involved now.
“It’s been an amazing success,” she said.
Weist, who also serves as an assistant coach for the Lebanon boys’ basketball team, says there’s more overlap between the hands-on teamwork on the court and the quiet concentration of chess. And, like Gabriel, he says chess helps improve students' classroom skills.
Weist said his chess team shows the same focus and attention to detail that he asks from his basketball players. And it was that focus and attention to detail that helped eighth graders Christine Berg and Dylan Heimbuch win top scores for their grade level and bring home first-place trophies.
“The six, seventh and eighth graders play each other and they all play five games,” Weist said. Berg and Heimbuch came out on top with the most points in the eighth-grade category and are now eligible to move on to competition in Portland in March.
While it was a win for Berg and Heimbuch, the team as a whole fell short of defending its title. The regional tournament pits teams in Linn, Benton, Polk and Yamhill counties against each other. Weist’s team didn’t compete its first year as a club but managed to win second place the following year. Last year, the team captured the first place win, beating Talmadge Middle School.
“It’s become a rivalry because the first year we won second, they won first. Last year, we beat them for first so it’s been flipping-flopping back and forth,” Weist said.
Weist said he’s proud of his team and will continue running practice games and talking strategy for next year.
“I’m just excited to give Lacomb and the community another option,” he said.
Gabriel, who has been having her chess club speak in Spanish during practices at the Spanish-English immersion school, said the success her team has found has carried over into other aspects of their lives.
She said that some of the club’s members went to visit grandparents in Mexico over winter break and played chess with them.
“It brings families together,” she said.
Gabriel added that Garfield intends to wrap the club for the year March 15, but bring it back next year since it has been so popular.