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T.J. Despinis, a junior, of Lostant said a video game can be costly and quickly becomes outdated, whereas chess is lasting.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.
"It used to be, 'My dad taught me to play' and not anymore. It's, 'I learned to play on the computer,'" Schulte said, noting that the learn-it-as-you-go process of playing computer chess likely leads to some of the bad techniques he sees in his new players.
"What we really try to teach them is to break all the bad habits they've learned," he said.
Schulte teaches positional chess, which, simply put, focuses on strategies to control the board and protect the king.
"Once they get comfortable with the board we play talking games where I point these things out," he said.
Schulte also uses his time with the students to talk about their future plans.
"Some of these guys are diamonds in the rough," he said.
Over the years Schulte has seen students with great potential who had no idea of the careers that could lay in their future and some who underperformed and needed to be challenged.
"Hopefully they're learning a little more than chess," Schulte said.
Some of those things also include manners and accountability.
"I'm really fortunate," he said, speaking of the club. "I have good kids."
In many ways the chess club is a place for those who just don't fit in elsewhere. While many students have found a home in the L-P chess club over the years, Schulte said he's always been puzzled why so few girls join.
Walter thinks the dearth of female chess club members may be a result of fear of joining an already male-dominated activity.
That isn't much of a problem for her. With a high-energy, brazen personality she provides an outgoing presence during the club's practices, jumping from game to game and conversation to conversation, never getting lost in the shadow of her male counterparts.
There's also the nerd thing. Chess clubs have long had a nerdy image and that may scare some girls off, Walter speculated.
In fact, they are all a little nerdy about something or other, she said. Not that they seem to mind much.
"He's a video game nerd, he's a DJ nerd, he's just plain weird, he's a clarinet boy," Walter said, ticking off her teammates one by one, with laughs and awkward acknowledgements all around.
The suggestion that she may be the "queen of the chess club" gives her great mirth and sets her to openly wondering which of her teammates would be her king. None jumped at the opportunity.
Although she's currently the lone consistent female member of the club, that hasn't always been the case. Even if some girls haven't always joined for the best reasons, she said.
"Some girls join chess club because their boyfriends are in it," Walter said.
For Walter, joining the chess club was primarily a way to "learn something new," she said.
"I used to think you had to be super smart, but really anybody could do it," she said.
Despinis added, "Once you learn how to move the pieces it's just about being passionate."
Understanding the ancient rules of chess can also set one apart in a good way.
"Knowing that I can do something that others can't means so much," Walter said.
In many ways though, the chess club is as much about socializing as it is about playing chess.Comment on this story
At any point the focus on chess can devolve and break up as cross-board conversations turn into laugh-filled discussions of which club member may have gotten a girlfriend and whether he's lying.
Aside from the opportunity to improve his chess skills, Martin is drawn to the club because of the atmosphere.
"The guys here are cool," he said.
Information from: News-Tribune, http://www.newstrib.com