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Dr. Michael McQueen, volunteer coach of the La Grande Middle School chess club, helps eighth-grader Trevor Lofton, left, and sixth-grader Ismael Velazquez hone their skills. About a dozen students attend the after school chess club sessions. CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer
by DICK MASON / The Observer
These La Grande Middle School students, unlike many teenagers, do not need to get plugged in after school to enjoy themselves.
The students are on board with one of the world’s oldest board games.
The teenagers are part of a LMS’s second-year chess club. Its members meet regularly after school to hone their chess skills under the direction of volunteer coach Dr. Michael McQueen of La Grande, an emergency room physician. About a dozen students attend the chess club sessions.
“It is fun and entertaining,’’ said Ismael Velazquez.
The LMS sixth-grader is among many members of the club who are showing promise. The student recently led his club to a third place finish at the regional Chess for Success middle school level tournament by placing fourth. Other LMS standouts included Trevor Lofton, who tied for fifth; Gareth Sattar, who placed 12th; Logan Rogers, 17th; and Mariah Nickerson, 18th.
LMS missed qualifying for the state Chess for Success tournament by just 1.5 points in its initial year of tournament competition.
“Not bad for the first year of junior high chess,’’ McQueen said.
He credits his team’s strong showing in part to an ability to remain calm in a competitive environment. At chess tournaments, players sit close together at tables across from their opponents. McQueen said some players are compelled to rush in this situation but not his players.
“They stayed focused, they didn’t hurry,’’ the chess coach said.
The ability to concentrate is one of the most important things students can learn from chess, McQueen said. He said that too often in today’s video world young people spend little time focusing on one thing. Only when they are doing something like playing chess are they absorbed in one thing for extended periods.
“It (playing chess) improves their ability to break down to the smallest detail and focus. That is the most important lesson they will take with them the rest of their lives,” McQueen said.
McQueen has been playing chess since he was in second grade. He was a member of a junior high team in Sweet Home that placed third in the nation in its grade division in 1983.
McQueen, who needs only to glance at a chess board to provide an instant analysis of a match, said chess played a big role in his development by helping hone his powers of concentration. Today, he boosts the skills of players with a variety of exercises. In one drill, players take on each other using only one chess piece, like pawns.
“This allows them to focus on the strengths of the individual pieces,’’ McQueen said.
Eighth-grader Trevor Lofton, who played the board game before joining the LMS club, said being a member has helped fine tune his skills.
“Before I just knew the basic moves. Now I have learned the other moves,’’ the LMS student said. “It is helping me perfect my moves.’’
The sixth-grader so enjoys chess that he sometimes plays against himself between club sessions. He will make a move from one side of the board and then take the other side pretending he is his opponent.
All chess club meetings are conducted in the LMS library under McQueen’s leadership. LMS librarian Kerri Myer said her school is fortunate to have someone of McQueen’s caliber to step forward to lead the program.
“I can’t say enough about him,’’ Myer said. “I don’t think the students realize how lucky they are to have him.’’
McQueen said he is lucky to have the opportunity to be a volunteer coach.
“It is great to be able to give back to the kids with a game which has made such a difference in my life.’’