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"Check" This Out--Chess Team Turns Pawns into Kings

From left to right: Junior Avery Hodges, junior Arden Gardner, and freshman Wyatt Ruble competing at the Harvest Swiss Chess tournament at Fallon Park Elementary School. (Courtesy Photo)

By Patrick Trent-- Eagle Staff Writer

The Chess Club has been a part of Franklin County for a long time, though most students know little or nothing about it. In fact, it's existed for more than six years, but since 2016 Eagle Tech teacher Ross Zabloski has been its sponsor.

“There was a teacher doing it at the high school before I picked it up,” Zabloski began. “I became the sponsor when he left to go teach at the middle school in 2016. I had only played chess a couple of times before becoming a coach for the team. One of my former students told me that the club would have to shut down if they couldn't find a faculty sponsor. I wanted to help out a group of kids that sometimes get overlooked, so I volunteered to be the chess coach.”

Back then, Zabloski only played a handful of games and wasn’t at the skill level of some of the students already in the club.

“I didn't win a single game against the kids in the club my first year coaching,” Zabloski said, “but I learned a lot from the senior players to be able to teach the basics to newer players.”

After finding his footing on the chessboard, Zabloski explained that he was drawn in by how formulaic and systematic the game can be.

“When you look at the board as a new player, it is overwhelming with all the pieces and potential moves. But in reality, people who know how to play chess will tell you there is a higher probability of winning that comes from only a handful of opening moves,” he shared. “Then you memorize those moves and you learn the variations of how to counter what your opponent does if they make a specific move. Learning the rules and strategies in a simplified way for something that seemed so complex really appealed to me.”

The chess club is for players that are both competitive and non-competitive. Some players seem to just want to have a good time and improve at the game so they can beat their friends and family. For those who have a competitive spirit, there are annual chess competitions, one of which was held on Saturday, October 15.

“We also go to tournaments once a month in Roanoke where Franklin County High School competes as a team,” Zabloski described. “Our wins and draws get counted collectively toward our team score against other schools in the area. There are trophies for the top schools and for the top individual players.”

Attending these competitions is brand new for some players due to COVID.

“We haven't been able to go to tournaments since the pandemic, so we are excited to be back to going to tournaments this year,” Zabloski commented. “The biggest tournament of the year is in March which is the State Chess Tournament where we travel over a weekend to Virginia Beach or Northern Virginia to compete against schools across Virginia.”

To prepare for these competitions, the team is constantly practicing. They begin by looking at puzzles of how to get a checkmate in 1, 2, and 3 moves, respectively. Then, Zabloski said that he teaches new openings to the group so they’ll understand how to “read moves” and counteract.

Once the players are comfortable with the rules, they pair up and play chess. Over, and over, and over again.

“If there is still time, we will play a variant game that changes the rules to sharpen a specific skill or stretch their way of thinking,” Zabloski added.

The team is averaging about 10 players and includes a mix of both girls and boys, but Zabloski emphasized that they are always looking for more members. Whether or not interested players have experience doesn’t matter, as the team already includes players with a wide range of experience. In fact, about half of the team is new to chess.

Anyone interested in learning about the club can stop by 244 Tech A to speak with Zabloski.

“We are always looking for more members. The more people that come makes it more fun to play against different people every time. The ideal person coming to chess club is someone who is open to learning new things and doesn't already think they are the best. You have to be okay with not winning every game and be willing to try new things to improve your game,” Zabloski advised. “Being at chess club is a chill environment to make friends while talking over a common interest.”

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