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SPOTLIGHT: Chess Club survives at Illinois school

By Matthew Baker

The News-Tribune

Published: Sunday, Feb. 5 2012 8:45 a.m. MST

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, FEB. 5 AND THEREAFTER - In this photo taken Jan. 10, 2012, junior Grant Mercer stares down his opponent freshman Scott Burris over a chessboard during a La Salle-Peru Township High School chess club practice in La Salle, Ill L-P's chess club remains one of the few remaining high school chess clubs in the area.

NewsTribune, Anthony Souffle, Associated Press

LASALLE, Ill. — White goes first and the game is on as two strangers face off over a rollup chessboard on a chilly afternoon in the old cafeteria at La Salle-Peru Township High School.

The competitors attempt to talk although their focus in on the 32 plastic pieces being used to attack and defend. It doesn't take long before 15-year-old Tristan Martin of La Salle has taken command of the board and the reporter, twice Martin's age, on the other side of table resigns, knocking his own king down in defeat.

"I've always loved playing chess and I love the logical skill and challenge that it gives," Martin said.

He's not alone.

Although small, L-P's chess club continues as one of the remaining few in the area.

Led by coach Bill Schulte, owner of River Valley Insurance in La Salle, the team of roughly 10 students meets weekly for practice and takes part in a handful of out-of-area competitions each year.

Since taking over for L-P's long-time teacher and chess coach Byron Pappas about 12 years ago, Schulte has worked to keep the club active through participation in the homecoming parade and promoting it to incoming students during the annual eighth-grade open house.

The game of chess has been basically the same for the past 500 years, with a history and heritage stretching even further back. In a world where those with an interest in gaming challenges can dive headlong into immersive and challenging video games, chess manages to survive.

"I think it's the live action. I think it's the over the board, man against man, woman against woman," Schulte said.

For many of Schulte's players, chess is a supplement to other forms of gaming, he said.

T.J. Despinis, a junior, of Lostant said a video game can be costly and quickly becomes outdated, whereas chess is lasting.

Additionally, with video games a player's focus is on a television or computer screen, but chess comes down to facing a live opponent and trying to evaluate him or her, Despinis said.

"It's all about posturing," Despinis said. "I've gone in there using different personas."

Despinis has been playing chess since sixth grade and is nominally the club's top player, or first board, although Schulte noted no ranking is set in stone. Rankings are based on skill, seniority and dependability, Schulte said, and at any time a player can challenge the player ahead in rank for the better spot.

Nevertheless, Despinis has an air of swagger as he talks about his game play within the club.

In previous competitions, he said he has attempted playing the smartly dressed nerd to lackluster results. He believes that persona has only caused his opponents to play harder against him. He said he's fared better when putting on a cocky demeanor.

Brianna Walter, 16, of La Salle recently was caught off guard and lost when she underestimated a female opponent from another high school who walked up to the chessboard carrying a cup of Starbucks coffee and a pillow.

In the past Schulte has found opportunities for his players to face off against chess grand masters in simultaneous exhibitions — picture any chess movie where a single great player challenges a long table of lesser players at one time.

"It's just an opportunity to play someone world class," Schulte said, comparing it to what it would be like for one of the Cavalier football players to play against an NFL pro.

Schulte has noticed some changes in his incoming students over the years.

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