MIAMI — The Edison Park Rooks are hoping for a repeat.
After sharing the national chess championship last year in a jaw-dropping performance that saw the team earn seven district, regional and national awards, this year’s mostly all-girl team is training for what they hope is another stellar season.
Under the enthusiastic guidance of art teacher-turned-chess-coach Webber Charles, the elementary school students practice three times each week for several hours, although Charles snatches practice time whenever he can.
“If I see them and I have a board, we’ll practice,” the second generation Haitian American said.
Charles said the team has received $500 from Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez on the way to the $50,000 he’d like to raise. Charles raised $20,000 in private donations for last year’s team, but is eyeing the larger amount so that he can reward last year’s champions and this year’s team with a trip to Paris.
“I know it sounds fluffy, but I want to take these kids out of the country. The national team never got that trip. We didn’t do anything special for them. We want to do something that they’ll never forget,” he said.
The 29-year old dynamo said he’s optimistic that this year’s team will do as well as his championship group, all of whom have moved on to middle school. With the exception of three students, the current team of nine girls and one boy is brand new.
In a male-dominated sport, Charles has devised a special strategy for working with his young ladies.
“We had a three-hour pow-wow with two women teachers here about black girls, and people’s perceptions about little young girls in the inner city,” he said.
Although he plans to recruit more boys, Charles said building the right foundation with the girls is imperative.
During their discussion, he said, the girls, “Really got a chance to understand…how their opponents will receive them when they sit across from a young Hispanic boy, or a young Arab boy, or a young
Chinese boy, or young white boy, or a young black boy, for that matter, how that dynamic plays because they’re a female.”
While students must possess certain qualities in order to do well in chess, Charles said his gut instinct is the most accurate predictor of who his star players will be.
“I recruit them based on initiative, interest, and I communicate with the teachers to see where they are academically. And then I try to go on intuition with a lot of them in terms of which students would be able to manage loss, failure, you got to feel the students out. You’ve got to get on a gut level.”
One of the teachers with whom he consulted is Makeesha Coleman. The fourth-grade teacher has two students, Marie Lokis and Veronica Faustin, on the chess team. In addition to playing for the school, Marie, 11, and Veronica, 10, share the game with their classmates.
“[Marie and Veronica] have been teaching the other kids in the class,” Coleman said, adding that the game has had a positive impact on both students, especially Marie.
“Marie started off the year being kind of unstable and very silly in class and not focused. She would give up very, very easily. I noticed that when she started chess, she started focusing; she started asking more direct questions. She was really trying to open her mind up and take her time. She doesn’t give up on anything now. She asks for more work, which is a big leap from where she was before.”
Charles said the team’s first tournament will help determine which of the new players leave and which remain on the team.
“Typically, the new students, it doesn’t hit them how big of a world chess is until they actually go to a tournament and see 300 kids all playing the same game. When they come back, they really know why they’re practicing,” he said.
In addition to the tournament pressure, this year’s team has the added pressure of living up to the accomplishments of their predecessors.
“They got some big shoes to fill. [Last year’s team] were district champions, regional champions, PCS champions, national co-champions, they came up fifth in the state. To do that in just one year, it was just total dominance.”
Nine-year-old Emmanuella Pierre admits that her older sister, Joanne, who was on the school’s 2006 team, is the better player. That doesn’t stop her from setting high goals for herself. When asked what she hopes to accomplish by playing chess this year, the soft-spoken girl said, “To win all my games.”
Emmanuella also recognizes the game’s impact on her schoolwork.
“I’ve been getting more A’s,” she said with a smile.
Photo: Emmanuella Pierre