WEST ENGLEWOOD— The Earle STEM Academy Chess Team keeps collecting wins.
The team took third place overall in Chicago Public Schools' Academic Chess South Conference Playoffs last weekend.
What's more, seventh-grader Tamya Fultz, 13, won first place in individual chess by achieving a perfect score with no losses in the tournament Saturday.
Tamya's coach, Joseph Ocol, has given her the nickname “Chess Queen of the South.”
“This is the first time ever in the history of our school and our community that a girl, a seventh-grader, has won first place in a CPS chess tournament,” Ocol said. “She bested even the eighth-graders who were pitted against her in this tournament.”
Tamya Fultz was the only girl to place in a CPS chess tourney last weekend. [Photo provided by Joseph Ocol]
Three weeks before that, Tamya won a bronze in the 2017 IESA State Chess Finals held in Peoria. Ocol said she was the only girl, the only African-American and only CPS student among the medal winners this year.
Tamya's mother, Andrea Smith, said although Tamya's father plays chess, Tamya never played until Ocol encouraged her to learn.
"It's awesome and amazing to see my kid do this," Smith said, adding that she's noticed positive changes in her daughter.
"I've noticed that her grades are better," Smith said. "Chess is a thinking game, and now she's a thinker. She will think before she makes a move."
Tamya said she enjoys competing, including in a marathon match against a boy in Peoria.
"It was a game that lasted for a long time," she said. "We were the last two there, and it was challenging because at first he was winning."
Tamya started playing chess two years ago with special instruction from Ocol, who said she is his top math student. She won a medal in a tournament held at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep in January.
She said she works hard all the time.
"I'm proud of myself because it's hard, so I have to [work hard]," Tamya said.
As the team's captain, she helps coach the younger players because she's become a role model, she said.
Even though the team saw its budget slashed as Chicago Public Schools cut costs last year, Ocol’s young players still have been meeting, improving and winning, he said.
“Our kids at Earle can surely excel in chess despite all the challenges they have been facing in their community,” Ocol said.
Last April, his all-girls chess team took home a national championship trophy. In the all-girls tournament in Chicago, they competed against 64 schools from across the country. They were one of only two African-American teams. The win was the first national championship team trophy for the school.
The team has gained national acclaim for its success. Some players got the chance to greet and shake hands with Obama when he was in town last October.
Ocol said he’s hoping to send Tamya and the rest of the team members to a national tournament in May that is held every four years in Nashville.
“If there are enough funds, it will be great to see her and her teammates compete in [what’s] considered the Olympics for elementary and high school chess and the largest chess tournament in the world,” Ocol said.
Earle Principal Cederrall Petties said he's proud of Tamya and has seen dramatic growth in her since last year.
"We are extremely proud of her accomplishments," Petties said. "She has gone from a shy and withdrawn student to a very tenacious and vocal student this year. I attribute that to her playing chess."
The team competes Saturday against local public schools for the CPS Academic Chess Championship.