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East Village's Champion Chess Team Heads to Nationals

By Serena Solomon | March 18, 2014 7:16am
 The chess team at East Side Community High School was recently crowned best in the city.
Chess Team of East Side Community High School
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EAST VILLAGE — An average school day for Janell Warner, 13, goes something like this: chess in the morning, chess at lunch, chess after school and a few chess puzzles before bed.

"It makes you think and it's fun," said Warner, an eighth-grader from the East Village who has been playing for three years. "It's not work or an obligation."

Warner's classmates on East Side Community High School's chess team are equally obsessed with the game — and it's paying off. The school's junior high team recently won Chess-in-the-Schools' Grand Prix tournament for New York City and about a dozen students will go to a national competition in San Diego in April.

"In four years, East Side went from not having any chess program to having one of the premier programs in New York City and the nation," said school principal Mark Federman.

"The students and coaches work, learn and plan at an incredible level, and the school community has made an incredible commitment to the team."

The school rose to second place in the Chess-in-the-Schools competition last year before winning this year's tournament on March 8, beating schools including M.S. 279 and M.S. 390 in The Bronx. The competition is only open to schools that receive federal Title I funding, meaning they serve students from low-income families. 

"It was a good feeling that your hard work has paid off, that I was able to contribute," said team captain Justin Griffin, 15, who helped coach the younger students and has been on the team since it started in 2009.

The team earned $4,000 with its citywide victory, which will help get some of the students to the United States Chess Federation's national championship in San Diego.

This will be the fourth year at the nationals for East Side Community High, but it's the furthest they need to travel to get there.

Asked how excited he was on a scale of one to 10, Griffin replied, "I'm at about a 12."

Last year, Warner won the national under-13 division, and this year she is hoping for another victory despite being bumped up into the next age bracket.

"I'm going to be the top player," she said.

A crucial part of the team's success has been its coach Sammy De Jesus. His brother, Juan, founded the program in 2009 and De Jesus took over in 2012.

"It's a lot of work and a lot of practice," said De Jesus, 25, who teaches chess to students during the school day and runs the chess team early in the morning, after school and on Saturdays. In-school classes are funded by the Department of Education and the after-school program is funded by the University Settlement's Beacon Program.

The team's practice routine consists of chess puzzles, students mentoring less-experienced players and one-on-one coaching from De Jesus. Plenty of hours are also clocked in the weekly Chess-in-the-Schools competitions.

"They [the students] really make it fun and entertaining," said De Jesus. "I love the fact I can see them improving and just becoming better people."

For both Warner and Griffin, skills that are honed in the game spill into their lives outside of chess.

"Every move you make affects the ending [of the game]," Warner said. "This makes me think about the decisions I make in life."