DRY RIDGE, Ky. - As Seth Fulk stood looking up at his roof that had been ripped off by the March 2012 tornado, he heard a small voice from below. The tall man glanced down to see one of his chess players asking, "Are we going tomorrow? Can we go tomorrow?" Fulk peered at his roof and back to the child and said: "Yes, of course." They were off to the state chess tournament.
"The desire in their little hearts to play is amazing," said Kay Hughett, who started the Grant County Schools Chess Club in 2007.
Better known as "Miss Kay" or "Queen Mum," Hughett, 66, started with six players and a newspaper ad seeking a coach. In the beginning, the team played on discount store chessboards for an hour after school each day.
Fulk answered the ad seeking a coach and made his first moves toward building an award-winning chess team.
"I just knew the outcome would be good," said Hughett, who retires this year.
"When you're notating the knight, it's a ‘n' not a ‘k,'" Fulk explained to the students who sat scattered at the Crittenden Mt. Zion Elementary School library on an April school day. Ranging from kindergartners to eighth-graders, they sat at tables in pairs, chessboards between them. Eyes squinted with concentration and chins rested on fists, as the chess players plotted theirs moves.
That concentration and skill scored 25 out of the approximately 65 players in the club an invite to the 2013 United States Chess Federation Super Nationals in Nashville, Tenn., on April 5.
It was the largest chess event in history, drawing more than 5,300 students from around the country.
Competing were two teams from Grant County Middle School, one team from Crittenden Mt. Zion Elementary School, and one team from Dry Ridge Elementary.
Fulk's K-6 and K-8 teams placed 23rd and 24th respectively, in the nation—playing against nearly 1,000 4-person teams.
All in the Fulk family
Among the chess players on Fulk's nationally ranked teams were his two sons, Cole, 12, and Will, 7.
In fact, Cole was the chess club's first player. His father and coach hoped the high-focus game would help Cole, who has ADHD, to concentrate on tasks and schoolwork. Chess, said Fulk, is a 3-dimensional game, in which the player must predict his opponent's every move.
"You have to think about past, present and future at the same time," he explained. "It stimulates the mind, and (Cole) loved it and was good at it."
Fulk said chess prowess paid off for his son, whose concentration improved, along with his grades and test scores.
"It's pretty amazing," the proud father said. "He could be climbing the wall one minute and sit down to a three-and-a-half hour chess game and focus."
Cole said he has gotten a lot out of the game his dad taught him back in the first grade.
"I've loved it. It's opened a lot of doors, I think for the better," said the sixth grader. "I think chess is the greatest thing to happen, if you ask me."
Good chess, good sports
Sixth grade player Austin "Murph" Creech, 11, who also plays soccer and basketball, has been in the chess club for two years. Like Cole, the self-described "good" chess player said the game helps him when he hits the books.
"You really have to think your hardest," Austin said. "It helps in school and I'm happy my test scores have gone up."
"It helps you think better. It's also just fun to play," Austin said. During long matches he takes quick mental breaks to concentrate on the game, and "then it's back to the board."
Chess has taught Cole, Austin and their teammates more than concentration, skill and dedication. Fulk said the game provides lessons about sportsmanship.
"[Even] if they're not a sports-related kid, they can be on a team and understand how to lose and how to win graciously," the coach said. "The level of competition [in Nashville] is so high, you have to be good chess players, but also look at losing as a learning experience."
It doesn't hurt to have the biggest cheering section at the tournament. Grant County parents, whom the coach lovingly calls "the Moms," even created a wave in the stands for their kids.
"I think it's really good—it gives them more self-confidence and independence," said Laura Perkins, who is mother to two players.
Thanks to Miss Kay
Still, the chess club would not have gone to nationals--or even existed--if it weren't for Hughett, whose day job is coordinator of the Family Resource Center for Grant County Schools. She said seeing the Queen City Classic on the news in 2006 sparked her dream.
"It's something I believed in and they've achieved it," she said with emotion. "(The students) worked hard and achieved a goal for themselves. I planted the seed and it grew."
Miss Kay has watched her players blossom in the program that she started because "kids needed something different, something special."
It's been an opportunity she said for them to leave everything troubling them behind, at least during a match.
"To watch some of these kids… and when they're sitting at the chess table, they don't have to think about what's going on at home, or the bully at school, they just play," she said with a shaky voice.
It's a game that has prepared them for not only tournaments, but also for life.
"[I] have tremendous pride. These are special kids. They mentor each other—it teaches them to deal with many types of people, personalities and makes the think ahead, prepare."
And as they prepare for their next match, their next tournament and their future, her advice to the members of the chess club has always been: "Set your sights high and don't give up."
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