“I’m just a gawking spectator,” says fifth grade teacher David Nichols of the astounding success of the chess club he helped found at Ida Freeman Elementary School in Edmond.
How astounding? In the club’s 14 years of existence, it has won the state championship every single year, and according to Nichols, that the club exists at all is mostly attributable to the students at Ida Freeman.
“It was 1996 or ’97, and I noticed a lot of the kids at school playing chess during inclement weather,” Nichols recalls, “and while they played, there were always several more waiting to play.”
The students’ widespread interest led Nichols to wonder if there would also be interest in a school sponsored chess club, so he posted a signup sheet. By the end of the first day there were 50 names on the sheet. Back then, the club was limited to fifth graders who would give up their recess twice a week in order to learn and play chess. The students soon began asking Nichols about playing outside competition, and after competing in a handful of tournaments that first year, the Oklahoma Junior Chess Association, the state’s governing body for scholastic chess at the time, crowned the club state champion.
“David Nichols has done a tremendous job. He’s a great friend to chess,” says Chuck Unruh, president of the Oklahoma Chess Association, the parent organization of the Oklahoma Scholastic Chess Organization, which governs scholastic chess in the state today.
“We’re there to help coaches and teachers of chess,” Unruh says of the OCA’s charter. “Our goal for students is for them to allow chess to help organize their thoughts in life, math, music and whatever they approach.”
Nichols sees the effect chess has on his own students. Not only does chess help them focus in the classroom, but it also brings them together for a common goal as they strive to become the latest in the long line of champions at Ida Freeman. The bond for many is so strong that there is a regular contingent of Nichols’ former students who attend the chess club’s meetings, now held once a week after school, as mentors and assistant coaches.
“One of the amazing things I’ve seen in the club is the peer to peer teaching that goes on,” Nichols says. “A student might learn a certain zap over the weekend and bring it to chess club. Before long the entire club knows it. And by the next week they all know how to defend it.”
The desire to become better as a program serves the Ida Freeman Chess Club well during tournaments, where “The Blue Horde,” as they are known because of their blue team colors, regularly brings more than 60 players. And it’s only likely to grow, as the club, which once was open only to fifth grade students, is now represented by members from grades two through five.
“I really, really like it,” fifth grader Emily Ogletree says of the club. “If I can focus on chess, I can focus on anything.”
Ogletree’s classmate, Shane Keathley, feels the same way about the club, but for slightly different reasons.
“I just like to be there with my friends,” Keathley says.