Modesto students get brainy workout in chess competition

naustin@modbee.comJuly 24, 2013 

    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin

Modesto kids went pawn to pawn against some the top youth chess players in the nation this summer — and lost. But while the Bret Harte Chess Club left that first tournament without trophies, parents said, what they brought back was worth far more: confidence, skill and persistence.

A fifth-place trophy earned this weekend stands tall in the school library where they practice.

"At this age, I know chess develops their mind, their strategies," said Adrian Flores. Daughter Liliana Flores, 9, is teaching the family to play and beats him regularly, he said with a chuckle.

He's impressed that Liliana went up against national champions within her first weeks of learning to play. "She's got a good brain, a good mind," Flores said. "I'm proud of her."

Liliana knows she's good. "I like chess because it challenges me," she said between drills on knight moves. Like math, she said, chess came easily.

Bret Harte teacher Kevin Cripe started the club this summer after his son graduated from high school. "I was thinking, what am I going to do this year — play golf?" he said. "Teaching kids who like to learn and like challenges — it's a fun thing."

Three girls and seven boys, ages 6 to 10, have come three mornings a week all summer to do chess drills and play games.

"They're a sharp group of kids,

really strong," he said. "Chess is a pretty good gauge of how people can think."

He also credits parents for hanging in after that first tournament at Weibel Elementary, a world away in the foothills of Fremont. "Sitting there in that room, seeing that school, they watched their kids lose every game," Cripe said.

More than 7 in 10 Weibel parents have advanced degrees, and 1 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Contrast that with Bret Harte Elementary, in south Modesto, where 2 percent of parents have a college degree and 97 percent of the students are poor. Donations paid their entry fees.

The mantra is to analyze and do better, Cripe said. "Win or lose, we learn from it and move on," he said.

Cripe believes in competition, having his classes drill math facts and challenge the upper-grade students to a multiplication speed round. "We win," he said, relishing the words. Next year he has second-

graders who'll battle for subtraction supremacy.

"Math facts are the gateway to word problems," he said. "When they know the facts like lightning — it's not everything, but it's part of it. It accelerates all the other stuff."

The competitions teach more than math, he adds. "It's teaching them how to process when they don't succeed."

Studying the chess board while his partner moved a knight through the drill, 9-year-old Michael Joseph said the game "helps us learn, makes us work harder." His older brother started chess in third grade. "He beats me," he said glumly.

Bryan Figueroa, 8, is crazy about the game, sister Flor Figueroa said. "He wakes up every morning excited to come to chess. Our mom used to have to wake him up to go to school," she said. "He likes it better than watching TV and he's learning a lot."

Yadira Barrita said her son Ethan Barrita-Castellanos, 9, plays his sister at home and practices chess on a cell phone app. "He's really intelligent and he tries really hard," she said, watching him play, deep in concentration.

For Arminda Anaya, having two children playing chess means a quieter house, she said in Spanish. "It exercises his mind," she said of 9-year-old Oscar Mercado Jr., and keeps him away from video games. Oscar plays his sister, the youngest chess competitor in the club, 6-year-old Sugeidi Mercado.

The games are fun, but they are also a path to success in school, Cripe said. "They may not play chess in adult life, but it gets them on the way to college and that's wonderful, too," he said.

Anyone wishing to donate to the Bret Harte Chess Club may send a check made out to to Bret Harte Elementary School, with "Chess Club" in the memo field, to the school, 909 Glenn Ave., Modesto, 95358.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter, @NanAustin,

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