Two teens sit hunched over a checkered plastic mat early Tuesday morning at Loudoun Valley High School. One of them picks up a bishop, fingering the white wooden game piece as he contemplates his next move. Finally, he sets down the piece.
“Check,” he says.
Despite the quick access to X-Boxes, PlayStations and iPhone games, a small group of six kids meet to play each other in a game that has origins back to the sixth century.
But thanks to modern technology, the kids finally got the opportunity to battle for school pride.
A bustling club
The chess club has been around Loudoun Valley before Ronald Snyder, the current faculty sponsor of the club and math teacher, arrived nine years ago. The previous sponsor noticed Snyder, a former high school player and coach at Jefferson (WV) High School, had more enthusiasm for chess, so he relinquished the club.
For years, the club met only during the designated club period, where it often boasted 40 kids immersed in boards.
“Kids just like to play,” Snyder said. “As long as they can move the pieces, they can come and play and relax.”
Earlier this year, some of the members approached Snyder wanting a more competitive environment.
“Mr. Snyder saw we really liked chess, so he helped us take it further,” said Alby Froelich, a junior and one of Valley's top players.
That's where Brian Carr came in.
Carr is the Virginia High School Chess League director and statewide coordinator. While there were enough schools in the Greater Richmond and Hampton Roads area to form two leagues, many schools fell out of a concentrated area. That, plus Northern Virginia's notorious traffic problem, motivated Carr to start the Cyber Chess League.
“The Cyber League is our great experiment this year,” Carr said. “But it eliminated the need to travel and allowed schools that otherwise wouldn't be able to participate.”
Through the Cyber League, schools meet online after school to do battle on the boards. Like tennis, players are ranked from top to bottom with the top four playing their equivalent. Players get their team two points for a win, one for a tie and zero for a loss. The team with the top score wins. Unlike other chess events, Carr's league is team-oriented.
Currently, two schools from Loudoun, Valley and Stone Bridge, compete in the league. Both teams boast undefeated records for the spring season, with the Vikings posting a 3-0-3 record and the Bulldogs boasting a 4-0-1 record.
Both squads' seasons will culminate this weekend at the Second Annual Virginia High School Chess League State Tournament in Richmond. While Valley just hopes to make a good showing, Stone Bridge, who has fielded a competitive chess team for five years, hopes to win the whole team tournament. Stone Bridge won the VHSCL regional meet, while Valley took second.
“We expect to win the team championship this weekend, but a top three finish would be commendable,” said Deodato Obregon, one of Stone Bridge's two coaches.
The Bulldogs foray into chess began five years ago, when a parent offered to teach some of the students chess and guide them at the Virginia State Scholastic Chess Tournament. The Bulldogs took fifth in this year's Scholastic tournament.
Both Obregon and his fellow coach Albert Faraone hope to introduce more students to the game and generate school pride. Snyder echoed those statements for his own team.
“I'd say my guys growing and doing better helped get me excited about doing more,” Snyder said.
Carr hopes to work with Virginia High School League to help make these goals a reality.
“The ultimate goal is so persuade VHSL to allow chess to become an officially sanctioned activity,” Carr said.
For now, Carr is working on reviving a passion for the game.
“We're just trying to rekindle spirit and enthusiasm,” he said. “Virginia use to have a very vibrant chess community.”
UPDATE: Stone Bridge took second and Loudoun Valley took third in the state meet. Both the Bulldogs and the Vikings scored 54, but Stone Bridge won tiebreaker. Maggie L. Walker's Governor's School for Government and International Studies took first with 58 points.