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The Magic of Chess Moves: The K-12 in Disney World Print E-mail
By Melinda J. Matthews   
December 17, 2013
Right before the 2013 K-12 Nationals started, my Facebook friends began sharing posts bragging about  Florida’s temperatures, which hovered around the high 70s/low 80s while the rest of the nation battled bitterly cold snow and storms.  Since most of the world connects through social media these days (or so it seems), I’ll bet those chess families traveling from other parts of the country saw the same posts and looked forward to enjoying balmier climes.  Fortunately, except for a very brief bout of rain, the weather lived up to its stellar press.

Typically beautiful Florida weather: Coronado Springs’ central lake Photo: Frank Johnson

I enjoyed my own a small holiday miracle: for the first time in four visits, we actually found our way to Coronado Springs, host to the K-12 Nationals, in the dark – without getting lost.  For those crucial last few miles, Nicky was armed with my Mapquest print-out and a flashlight, but as I rounded each bend, the route seemed (almost) eerily familiar.  We never needed the directions.

Our good fortune continued.  Check-in was fast, efficient, and ridiculously cheerful, especially given the late hour.  As a finishing touch, our beaming guest service assistant happily introduced us to the newest Disney innovation, the MagicBand, an electronic bracelet that enables the wearer to do everything from opening the room door to ordering park tickets.  The bracelets were grandly presented in a nifty little box with our names printed on it.  Our generation gap was immediately obvious: Nicky grinned delightedly, fascinated by this latest marketing gizmo; I, on the other hand, admittedly suspicious of all things electronic, warily reserved judgment (final verdict: handy if you are pocket- or handbag-free; otherwise unnecessary, as the room key functions similarly).

As we walked to our room, Nicky chided me for my bias against all things Disney.  The sound of happy children laughing in the pool floated in the air, holiday lights glittered and shimmered over the lake. The distant thundering strains of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain enhanced the surrealistic feel.  I grudgingly had to admit the overall effect was, indeed, enticing and (dare I say?) magical. 

Tournament Side Events: Bughouse and Blitz

The reunion: Nicky and Epiphany Peters

When Epiphany Peters knocked on our door at 9:00 a.m. Thursday, we were all coming off of less than four hours of sleep. In our collectively fogged state we dallied, suddenly realizing we had less than 15 minutes remaining before bughouse registration ended.  Despite the chaotic start and some serious sleep deprivation, Nicky and Epiphany finished bughouse tied for third behind the co-champion teams of Sam Schmakel and Jimi Atkintade (first on tie-breaks) and Nathaniel Kranjc and Max Zinski.  In an unusual coincidence, both co-champion teams hail from Illinois.
Nathaniel Kranjc and Max Zinski, Bughouse Co-Champions with Scholastic Council rep, Jay Stallings

Fortified by an afternoon rest and heaps of steaming rice freshly prepared by Epiphany’s mother, Nicky and Epiphany bounced into the blitz tournament far perkier than in the morning.  Rest and food apparently made a huge difference: Nicky won the K-12 blitz championship, taking clear first, and Epiphany tied for second with Sam Schmakel and Justin Lohr of Virginia.  
Nicholas Rosenthal, K-12 Blitz Champion

The K-6 blitz section saw a three-way tie: Cole Frutos of Texas, Franklin Zhou of Minnesota, and Bryant Lohr of Virginia shared co-championship honors, with Cole taking first on tie-breaks.
Cole Frutos: K-6 blitz co-champion (1st on tiebreaks)


The Main Event

Friday the 13th proved to be good luck for my chess players: Nicky and Epiphany won both rounds.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be a bit of bad luck for me: With our attention diverted by our MagicBands (go with me on this), Nicky and I left my car’s interior light on and the battery completely drained. Lucky for me that Nicky’s brother, Ben, was able to jump-start my stone-cold car.

Over the next two days, Nicky’s tournament continued extremely well: by the final round, he was tied for first place, having only ceded a draw to top seed, Sam Schmakel.  A repeat championship, alas, was not in the cards.  Nicky’s final opponent, Josh Harrison, held him to a draw, landing him in second place, a half point behind Sam.  And so, the 12th grade championship went to Sam, who finished with an impressive 6.5 points.  Hearty congratulations, Sam!
Sam Schmakel 12th Grade Champion, with Jay Stallings

Here’s Nicky’s fifth round game with Sam:


The other sections fought through their own tough challenges. In the 10th grade division – top-heavy with four Masters vying for the crown – Josh Colas and Justus Williams, both of New York, shared the title.  

Josh Colas, 10th Grade Co-Champion, with Jay Stallings

Several sections saw perfect 7-0 scores.  11th grader Varun Krishnan of California swept his section, which included a win over the highest rated player in the entire event, Arthur Shen.


Also congratulations to perfect winners, 7th grader Advait Patel of West Virginia, 2nd grader Jason Yuyang Wang of Ohio and 1st grader Lucas Foerster-Yialamas of New York.  Rick Sun of Arizona won the 5th grade section in clear first, while Tianming Xie of Texas won the 6th grade section.

Joaquin K. Perkins of California took first in the 4th grade section, his 7th National title. Here are two of his games, a win and his only draw, in which he was lost in the final position. His dad Kele, who has previously contributed to CLO, remarked that perhaps this is a good “cautionary lesson about overconfidence.”  



In the ninth grade, Christopher Wu of New Jersey tied with Aaron Shapiro Balleisen of North Carolina, who gained almost 80 rating points at the tournament.

There were also a number of big ties. Three topped the eighth grade section: Prateek Pinisetti (AZ), Alexander Crump (NY) and Justin Lohr (VA). Five tied for first in the kindergarten Championship: Kenneth Grayson Cooke and Marvin Gao of Florida, Tejas Rama of New Jersey, Aatish Satheesh of Tennessee and William Safranek of New York. Seven tied in the third grade: Martin Stukan (IL), Winston Ni (NJ), Connor Dong (NY), Henry Hawthorn (TX), Dylan Challenger (NY), Tanish Kosthapalle (TN) and Jacob Bakalinsky (WI).

See all results here.

Varun Krishnan, 11th Grade Champion

Advait Patel, 7th Grade Champion, with Jean Hoffman

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Jason Yuyang Wang, 2nd Grade Champion

A round of applause goes to Chief TD Mike Hoffpauir for running an efficient tournament; he was particularly effective in staying focused and on track.  Kudos also must go to Pat Smith, whose Herculean efforts in organizing the event may sometimes go unnoticed, but are never unappreciated.

A shout-out, too, to the friendly folks at ICC, who offered free six-month memberships (or membership extensions) to every player in the tournament.  We originally stopped by the booth because Nicky fixated on the live blitz game between two IMs that was being broadcast.  We left with six additional months for Nicky and a year for Epiphany.

Other Side Events: Meetings, Meet-and-Greets, and Meet-Ups

I had privately noted during the side event trophy presentations that Epiphany was the only girl crossing the stage.  Although girls were strongly represented in the main tournament, the male-to-female ratio still quite obviously tilts heavily in favor of males.

Increasing female participation was one topic discussed during Saturday’s Scholastic Council meeting.  Part of the discussion focused on whether or not girls-only events were helpful or exclusionary.  Sunil Weeramantry, a respected fixture in scholastic chess, mentioned he once asked Judit Polgar for her opinion.  Her response, he said, was that she definitely saw value in girls-only tournaments.  Weeramantry elaborated, adding, “This is one way to facilitate girls’ participation.”

Of course I couldn’t resist asking my favorite female participant for her opinion on the subject.  And even though she’s competed in girls-only tournaments, Epiphany said she favors playing in the strongest events possible, regardless of gender mix.  

The meeting itself proved to be an excellent forum for those interested in effecting real change in scholastic chess. Jay Stallings of the Scholastics Council chaired the event, with Weeramantry and the USCF’s new Executive Director, Jean Hoffman, joining him at the table.

Active representatives from the Florida Scholastic Chess League, Commissioner Elizabeth Tejeda and President Willard Taylor, attended all scholastic meetings
Hoffman hosted her own Parents and Coaches coffee on Sunday morning.  Keeping the mood casual, Hoffman opened with brief remarks to the audience, then stopped by each table to say hello and to answer any questions.  She proved to be approachable, concerned, and extremely knowledgeable – characteristics that will serve her well in her new duties.  She also seemed to be everywhere at once throughout the tournament, delivering remarks during both the K-1 and K-12 opening ceremonies, handing out trophies, popping into meetings, and generally making herself available.

Grandmaster Var Akobian made an unexpected appearance at the tournament, serving as adviser to team members from New York’s Collegiate School.  Akobian has been extremely kind to Nicky ever since they met at Castle Chess Camp several years ago; it was he who encouraged Nicky to apply to Lindenwood University, where he’s on the coaching staff. Completely coincidentally, Nicky has been playing online occasionally with 7-year old Collegiate School student, Theo Boris, whom he met at Castle Chess last summer.  Theo’s interest in Nicky was piqued when he discovered their similar half-Korean heritages; they’ve been buddies ever since. And so, the two worlds converged at this tournament when Theo’s mother, Janet, arranged for all of us to meet for an early dinner before Round 5.  
Theo Boris, Var Akobian, Nicky and Epiphany
party.jpgOn a personal note: I deliberately did not offer to volunteer for this tournament because I was having a meet-up – Ben and his girlfriend, Valeria (left), joined us Friday night on their way home from University of Florida; I wanted to hang out with them during rounds. 

Together we closed out the tournament Sunday night by racing over to Downtown Disney’s House of Blues, where we rocked out to one of my favorite bands, the Goo Goo Dolls (don’t judge me).  For me, at least, it was the perfect way to say farewell to the K-12s: I finally doffed my watchful parent hat and kicked back as a carefree (and slightly off-key) adult.

Melinda’s Mickey Mouse Advice

Over the years, my feelings toward Disney have mellowed.  Learning to navigate the resort has helped smooth our visits, so here I will pass down my hard-earned Coronado Springs wisdom to new parents about to take up the K-12 Nationals gauntlet:

First, and most important, ask for a room within easy walking distance to the tournament hall (best bet is the Casitas).  Otherwise, you may have to rely on in-resort bus service to ferry you back and forth.  Although Disney’s bus service is efficient and frequent, it’s another layer of time and patience added to a possibly stressful situation.  

Second, make sure you have an in-room refrigerator.  (Sidebar: if you don’t have access to a car, be very nice to locals who can take you to buy drinks and snacks.)

Third, take everything critical I’ve ever said about the resort and throw it out the window!  Have fun and find your own way to enjoy the experience – the time spent together at these tournaments is fleeting and precious.

…And Finally

In my AmeriCorps duties, I’m learning – and teaching – life coaching skills, particularly related to the touchy subject of finances.  The coaching tools have been eye-opening for me as well.  I’ve learned I tend to value money for the experiences it brings – education, travel, enrichment. I don’t desire materialistic trappings as much as I crave rich adventures.

Even though Nicky claims to have never visited Disney World, he actually was there once, in utero.  Eighteen years ago, I thought – erroneously, it turned out – that Nicky’s older brother, Ben, would love a splashy Disney vacation before Nicky arrived.  We camped at Fort Wilderness to save a few dollars; the simmering Florida heat combined with my seven-month pregnancy meant I spent as much time as possible cooling off in the air-conditioned bathrooms.  Ultimately, the vacation was worth it: two-year old Ben wore a happy grin the whole time.  But even in his best Mickey moments, I never saw in Ben’s eyes the same delight that lights up Nicky’s face whenever he’s in the midst of blitz or bughouse madness. 

In retrospect I realize Ben would have preferred racing a car (safely around a track, of course!) or banging a drum far more than his Disney adventure; even at age two, his adult interests were manifesting. So if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that what our children want, and what we adults want them to want, can be two very different beasts. It seems the best way to keep our kids actively involved (in chess, in school, in life) is to (duh) involve the kids. That means following their lead as they discover their interests.  We are merely their guides on their personal journeys.  

As we say farewell to K-12 Nationals, I’m simply grateful to have been along for the ride. Because thanks to Nicky’s determination, passion, and ultimate delight, the chess journey we’ve been on has been nothing short of breath-taking.  

Browse complete results and look for more coverage of this event in an upcoming issue of Chess Life Magazine.