The Super Bowl of Elementary School Chess
Two thousand high-achieving students. Hordes of proud parents, anxious coaches, and one scrappy underdog team from Harlem. Screaming. Crying. Chess.
Illustration by Janny Ji
A chess game often hinges on a single move. Advancing a pawn too early, choosing the wrong square for a knight: these are errors that lose games. Right now, in the seventh and final round of the U.S. Chess Federation National Elementary Championship in Nashville, Jason Zabre, a lanky sixth-grader from Harlem, faces a critical test. Taking an aggressive line, he has already sent a knight and queen onto his opponent's half of the board. He is in the thick of the "middle game," a freestyle phase characterized by tactical maneuvering and positional jockeying, which comes on the heels of a rehearsed sequence of moves called the opening.
He carefully studies the board inside the gigantic main ballroom of the Gaylord Opryland Convention Center, among more than 2,000 students from across the country, ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade. Minutes tick by, but time is not the enemy here; Jason has more than an hour left on his game clock. The enemy is his own impulse.…