Almost 170 students spent most of Saturday, Oct. 14 shuffling around Esperanza Academy Charter School, each taking a turn at one of the many tables arranged in columns and rows throughout the cafeteria. Each table had its own set of columns and rows—a chess board—and the attendees at the National Chess Day Tournament sat and pondered and shuffled their pieces about, hoping to outwit their opponent.
Esperanza hosted the tournament in honor of National Chess Day and in collaboration with ASAP Philadelphia and MasterMinds Chess Club of Philadelphia. It was a national event, drawing over twenty school and club teams from the Philadelphia area and beyond, as well as individual competitors. The tournament was even advertised on the website of the US Chess Federation, the official governing body for chess in the United States.
The atmosphere in the Esperanza cafeteria was one of utter seriousness and intense focus. It was totally silent, save the clicking of chess pieces being advanced and captured. Occasionally, someone jotted something in a notepad, an idea for a different strategy or a reminder to go back after the match to examine an earlier move and explore options for better moves that could have been made.
Although the cafeteria seemed still and silent to outside observers, De’Shawn McCleary, a ninth grader at Esperanza Academy, said that there was a lot of activity going on internally. “Chess is a challenge, and it gives me an adrenaline rush,” he said. “Your heart is racing, even though you have to be quiet and just move your hands. It gets your brain running around like you’re in a race.”
Alisha Parra, another ninth grade Esperanza student, enjoyed the tournament as well. She was thankful for the opportunity to reconnect with friends from other schools she had met at ASAP’s Philly Girls Chess Camp over the summer.
Alisha had only played chess for a week before she entered her first tournament last year, but she still came out with a win in one of her matches. She has grown as a player since then, and continues to enjoy the game. “It helps the brain. It’s complicated, so you learn new things,” she said. “You realize your mistakes. Going over your games afterwards helps a lot.”
Gabrielle Moshier, the Esperanza Academy teacher who heads up the chess team, was extremely pleased as the tournament wound down around 5:00 PM. Even after a long day of setting up tables, organizing hundreds of students, and even managing the chaos when the fire alarm accidentally went off, she gushed about the event, and especially about her students.
“We’ve been waiting to make this happen for a long time,” Ms. Moshier said. She credited the chess team for making the event a reality. They had networked with the tournament director at an earlier event and cultivated a friendship with him.
“Matteo Ruiz [a ninth grade Esperanza Academy student] went up to the tournament director and thanked him for all the work he did,” Ms. Moshier said. “No one had ever done that before.”
Matteo’s friendship with the tournament director paved the way for the National Chess Day Tournament to be held at Esperanza. That story is just one example of the way the students on the Esperanza chess team are making a name for themselves.
“We had two kids three years ago and we didn’t place in the tournaments, but the kids at Esperanza have this charisma that sticks out,” said Ms. Moshier. “The next year we had eighteen kids and everybody knew who we were, not because we were winning but because the kids were going up to adults and introducing themselves and helping out at tournaments. Esperanza Chess is a thing now.”
Both Ms. Moshier and the students are excited about the chess team’s growth. “Usually we get maybe twenty or thirty people to come to the tournaments at Esperanza, but this is something else,” Matteo said after the tournament. “We feel proud that we can bring these people into our home at Esperanza.”
With more tournaments slated to be held at Esperanza, and with plenty of talented young players like Alisha, De’Shawn, and Matteo, the Esperanza chess team is poised to keep growing as a program in the coming years. Here at Esperanza, we’re excited to continue covering their progress. Congratulations to the chess team!