Child's Gambit

At the Elementary Chess Championships guileless children became ruthless competitors.

Garrett Casey is a killer. And he is as adorable as they come. With his brown corduroy cargo pants and massive, cheerful blue eyes, he could hawk clothes for Baby Gap. The boy sits on his knees. If he didn’t, he couldn’t see above the table. His head is perched, a little wobbly, in his hands.

Well over 100 kindergarten and first-graders share the room with him, but Garrett, the youngest of them all, stares somewhere off in the middle distance, not looking at anyone in particular. The child sitting across from him, Lucy Van Newkirk, wears a sweatshirt that reads “Evergreen School Knightmares.” She fidgets a little.

Neither pays much heed to the chess board between them.

Then, the voice over the PA tells everyone to begin, and Garrett Casey’s focus shifts. Just a little. Down toward the board. Keeping his head perched on his right hand, he uses the left to move his pieces. King’s pawn first, then a bishop, then the queen. His movements are quick and precise but nonchalant, his strategy seemingly to open with Scholar’s Mate (commonly called the Blitzkrieg) — probably the first, and often the only, strategy chess novices learn by name.

Lucy recognizes it and defends, but Garrett continues unabated. His hands move quickly but still with the chubby awkwardness of a 5-year-old. Each move he makes is punctuated by slapping the piece he has moved down onto the board. He never stops attacking.

And then it’s over.

Before even five minutes are up, with all other matches still in progress, Garrett Casey is on his way back to his parents, victorious. Lucy Van Newkirk has stood up from the table and is now making slow circles, scanning the crush of bodies just outside the corral organizers have built for the youngest competitors. An event volunteer walks up and asks her name. “Let’s find Lucy’s mom,” the woman says, grasping the kindergartener and calling into the audience, “Let’s find Lucy’s mom.”

The State Elementary Chess Championships are open to kindergarteners through sixth-graders statewide who have scored three points in any five-round, rated tournament held during the year. A win yields one point. A draw yields a half.

More than 1,100 kids registered for the championship out of roughly 1,600 qualifiers. That’s a hefty number, and down only slightly from the numbers Seattle-area championships have seen. The seat of chess power in Washington resides on the west side — the area around Bellevue and Redmond, specifically. People have heard about the dominance of players from the area, speaking in awed tones about the ruthless children of Microsoft employees.

The chess scene in Spokane, by contrast, is nebulous and migratory. There aren’t many enduring club programs in the area. “Eleven years ago,” St. George’s coach Chris Copeland recalls, “that was sort of the beginning of scholastic chess” in the area. At 10 and 8 years old, respectively, the clubs at St. George’s and Deer Park’s Arcadia Elementary are the area’s legacy teams.

Tournament organizer and Arcadia coach James Stripes says, though, that every kid at the tournament is a fighter by mere dint of qualifying. “You gotta be tough,” Stripes continues, “when you’re at Round Five and you have two points and your opponent has two points and one of you is going to State and one of you isn’t.” Some, though, are tougher than others.

The U.S. Chess Federation assumes an entry-level rating of 250 for 5-year-olds. Just a year after picking up the game, Garrett Casey’s rating is 1,028, good enough to trade wins with his brother Braxton, a 7-year-old first-grader. Braxton’s 1,089 rating puts him among the top first-graders. Casey ranks third in the state among kindergarteners, even though he won’t enter kindergarten until next year.

Before either boy can take home a title, though, Garrett will cross paths with machine-precise Naomi Bashkansky (1,141) and Braxton will face the staggeringly patient Allistair Yu (1,309). Both are top-ranked players in their age group and both hail from the cradle of Microsoft.

Elliot Neff is a national chess master and a natural salesman. A coach for 17 years, he founded Chess4Life, the organization now largely responsible for all the fear people feel for the children of Microsoft employees. From his nearly 2,700-square-foot complex in Bellevue, he oversees camps and after-school programs while also offering programs at various schools in the area. The most successful of these is the program at Stevenson Elementary in Bellevue, which just won a National K-3 Championship. At the main campus, Chess4Life offers chess instruction five days a week.

Neff is quick to downshift, however. The game, to Neff, is not the be-all-end-all. It is a humble tool for teaching greater life skills. “In a way,” Neff says, concluding a steady, practiced sales pitch and curriculum vitae, “the chess is secondary to the life skills.” Both Yu and Bashkansky are Chess4Life regulars.

The Casey boys’ training regimen is a little different. Their school, Midway in Colbert, doesn’t have a chess club, none of their friends play, and their parents can’t match the boys’ skill. That leaves the boys to play with each other and to play Chessmaster 10 on their home computer.

Laura and Rick try make sure the head-to-head matches are supervised. “Brotherly emotion gets involved,” Rick says. “Somebody ends up crying.” The boys are observably clever, though, and find holes in their parents’ vigilance. Recently, Laura says, she caught them “doing quick games before breakfast.”

“We’d get up early and just sneak it in,” Braxton says, triumphantly.

Two weeks earlier, Garrett had taken second in a local K-3 tournament at St. George’s, where he beat a first-grader, two second-graders and a third-grader. The only person to best him was his brother Braxton. “Garrett’s in a good position to win it,” Stripes said. “He’s that good.”

The Casey boys don’t face much competition until Round Four, when Alistair Yu grinds Braxton into a mind-numbing, 35-minute battle of attrition. Where in earlier rounds Braxton had worked almost as quickly as Garrett, the elder Casey immediately matches Yu, slowing his decision-making to a crawl.

This control is learned. The more he plays chess, the more controlled he becomes. “He’s calming down,” Laura says. “Learning to be less impulsive,” Rick continues.

Impulse control is a skill that chess teaches better than anything else, according to Dr. Kathleen Webb, a pediatrician and tournament volunteer. When he was growing up, her son Michael Cambareri had severe ADHD. “We used to make him sit on his hands,” she says. He was, in her words, “like, the poster child for Ritalin.”  Ultimately, chess calmed him in a way drugs couldn’t. He went on to win multiple scholastic national championships. In sixth grade, he won the national K-8 division. Braxton’s patience never wanes, but eventually, after judges bring out the timers, his tactics fail. He’s slow getting his rooks out in defense of an attack by Yu’s queen. The game suddenly speeds up again, Allistair on the attack, Braxton scrambling frantically to recover ground and retreat his king to safety. Neither gambit works.

Braxton plays his final opponent to a draw, earning 3.5 points and 14th place overall. Allistair Yu takes co-champion honors.

Garrett and Naomi meet in Round Five, each with a chance at winning the championship outright. Garrett has pursued and cut down all of his opponents quickly. So has Bashkansky. While Garrett’s first rounds of work were so fast they almost seemed reckless, Naomi has maintained a kind of hurried grace throughout. She’s a remarkably seasoned player.

Like Braxton and Yu, the pace is markedly slower than in either competitor’s previous games. Garrett employs his tested strategy of sacrificing his pieces freely in order to take his opponent’s.

Then, for the first time in the tournament, Garrett Casey makes a fatal error. Several turns after backing his king into the far corner behind two pawns to escape a marauding bishop, the stronghold becomes a dead-end alley. When Naomi Bashkansky lifts her rook, Garrett realizes the folly. She hovers over the square that will checkmate him, making sure she hasn’t missed any defenses. Before she can decide, Garrett grabs the rook out of her hand and places it on the board, capitulating.

Bashkansky takes her championship and Garrett Casey becomes a little boy again.

With his lower lip reaching toward the floor, he pads off to find his mom. When he reaches her he stops for a moment, then throws his full weight into her. On the verge of tears, all he can manage is: “I lost.”

Laura Casey doesn’t know much about chess, but this part she’s great at: bringing the smile back. “But how many did you win?” she asks smiling. Then she needles his ribs a little. “How many did you win?” He looks up bashfully, trying to contain his sense of accomplishment. “Four.” Good enough for fifth place. “That’s amazing!”

And Garrett Casey laughs.

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About The Author

Luke Baumgarten

Luke Baumgarten is commentary contributor and former culture editor of the Inlander. He is a creative strategist at Seven2 and co-founder of Terrain.