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Library's Chess Club still going strong

Jonesboro youth, Bailey Stevens, has a five-move strategy for forcing chess opponents into a checkmate situation.

"If everything goes the way you want it to go, you can win in five moves," said Stevens, 12. "The only pieces you need are a pawn, a bishop, and the queen ... You've got to make it so the [opponent's] king is trapped, and cannot escape."

Riverdale youth, Jacob Ramirez, likes to trick opponents into moving their queens into a vulnerable position, so they can be taken out by his knight. Then he moves his own queen, to force the opponent's king into checkmate.

"Always start with the knight, because the knight can do some serious damage," said Ramirez, 9.

The strategy employed by Kennedy Garrett, of Jonesboro, is to first move her pawns, knights, and bishops in two lines in front of her king and queen to protect them from any threat.

"After that, my moves are just a reaction to whatever my opponent does," said Garrett, 10.

The three youngsters are among the more than 600 local children who have participated in the Chess Club, at the headquarters branch of the Clayton County Public Library System, since the group was formed four years ago. The club meets every Tuesday, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the headquarters library branch, which is located at 865 Battle Creek Road, in Jonesboro.

Since the Chess Club was created in 2006, the group has steadily held a weekly attendance average of 25 to 35 local children, according to Mark Allen, the club's founder. There have been times when the attendance was lower, like on Tuesday when only a handful of children showed up. But Allen said there have also been weeks when attendance was far above average.

"On the first Tuesday after school got out last summer, we had 55 kids show up, which is the highest amount of participation we've ever had in one week," Allen said.

The group was born out of the mutual desire of Allen and Bea Mengel, the youth services librarian for the headquarters branch, to establish a chess club. Allen was looking for a place to start a club for adults, while Mengel was looking for someone who wanted to organize a club for children.

"I saw a program on TV once about a teacher who was teaching inner-city youths how to play chess, and he was teaching them life skills while he taught them how to play chess," Mengel said. "It was really inspiring, and I thought, ‘Maybe we could have something like that here.'"

Their paths crossed when Allen came to library, inquiring about a place for an adult chess club, and Mengel convinced him to establish the club for children instead.

"She said, ‘We don't have space for an adult chess club, but we do have space for a kids' chess club in our children's section,' and I like children, so I didn't mind working with them," Allen said. "It's worked out well for everyone."

Allen said that despite there being more than 600 youths who have attended at least one Chess Club night at the library since the group was formed, only "80 to 100 of those children have shown up three or more times." Children are allowed to participate in the club at ages as young as 5, if they are interested, but must leave the group when they turn 18, Allen said.

Still, Allen added, "there's a small group that's really gung ho about it" and has shown up almost every week since the group was founded.

Forest Park resident, Zena Simpson, has been sending her son, Charles Simpson, 9, to meetings for three and a half years. She said chess has taught him about having patience, since chess is a game which can move slowly, and requires players to think about consequences for possible moves.

"His temper has improved since he started," Zena Simpson said. "He'd be quick to lose his temper before, but now he controls more ... He's learned a lot of patience."

Jonesboro resident, Joy Stevens, who is Bailey Stevens' mother, said her son joined the club last summer, after she found out it existed. Bailey Stevens said he has been playing chess since he was 4.

"Even this week, I asked him, ‘Are you sure you want to go tonight? I'm not feeling so well,' and he was adamant that yes, he wanted to come," Joy Stevens said Tuesday.

Allen said playing chess can help the youths when they are away from the chess board as well, by helping them develop an ability to focus on a subject, and use reasoning to find an answer. Some of the youths who attended Chess Club on Tuesday said the focus required to play chess was one of the game's biggest attractions for them.

Bailey Stevens said he enjoys playing chess because of the thought level needed to win games. "I like the focus that is required," he said. "There's always something to think about."

Ramirez, who has been in the Chess Club for a month, but has been playing the game for two years, said, "I just like how you have to think about your actions before you do anything."

Garrett, who has been in the group since October 2008, except for a seven-month period when she was playing softball, said chess has helped her with her school work.

"It keeps you focused on your work, and teaches you how to think things through before you come to an answer," she said.