TALENT — Fourth-grader Juan Gonzales took the 29th Talent Elementary School checkers championship Friday in an all-school tournament that included more than 70 percent of the school's 385 first- through fifth-graders.
Gonzales defeated second-grader Ryan Watts. Gonzales and Watts split games Thursday in the best-of-three competition.
"It wasn't a quick one," said Principal Curt Shenk. Gonzales took an early lead, then missed taking a few jumps, allowing Watts to remove checkers. But Gonzales was able to corner his opponent for the win.
"It helps kids change their perceptions of themselves," said Patty Knapp, a special-education teacher who retired last year but returned to assist in a tournament she's worked on for more than 20 years.
Knapp likes the fact that kids are interacting with each other directly, without any electronic filters. They sit across from each other and shake hands when a game is over.
"Kids will say, 'I didn't know he could play checkers really well.' That's very important for kids to believe in themselves and know they can do well," said Knapp.
Some of the students over the years have been very successful at this — regardless of whether they were succeeding in academic areas, said Shenk.
Teachers give up their lunch hour to supervise the tournament. Students began play at the classroom level on Jan. 27. Classroom champs competed for grade-level honors, then moved on to semifinals.
To determine finalists, first- and second-graders played each other, while third- and-fourth graders competed against each other. The first/second winner then faced the fifth-grade champ. This year, Watts knocked off a fifth-grader to advance to the championship, while Gonzales beat a third-grader.
Watts took the first game Thursday in short order. But Gonzales came back in the second, quickly gaining kings and taking checkers. His advantage held despite losing three kings in one late move.
Gonzales sat mostly motionless during the final match, while Watts at one point put both hands on the table and leaned over the board for study. Another time, Watts checked the pieces at eye level, his arms resting on the table.
Gonzales said he takes in the whole board before a move. Watts said that's a good strategy, but one he doesn't always follow.
"The triple jump was going to be a double. I didn't realize I was moving a piece to become a king," said Watts.
Checkers excitement sweeps the school during the tourney, with kids practicing in the halls at recess, said Shenk. But there's no audience or parents present for the final rounds, allowing contestants to concentrate without distractions.
"The buzz went around when the two-time school champ was knocked out," said Shenk. A fifth-grader who took the title in 2012 and 2013 lost at the classroom level.
"Checkers is kind of that way. Just one little mistake, and you are in or out," said Shenk.
During this year's tournament, a sister beat her brother in a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class, said Knapp. A brother and a sister of third-grade triplets also ended up playing each other in classroom competition.
Teachers Wayne Crowley and Bill Dietz started the tournament in 1985. Plaques on the wall in the media center list all the winners. Just three girls have won the championship.
"We felt there was a need for kids who weren't athletically inclined to learn sportsmanship," said Crowley, who is now retired. "We came up with checkers to get kids to do competitive things."
Shenk will take Gonzales to lunch at the restaurant of his choice.
Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at email@example.com.