Leisure/Human interest: Kid chess champs

Published in community newspapers owned by the Boston Herald, January 2003

Check and mate: Local youngsters are champions at chess

By Lori Hein / Correspondent
Thursday, January 2, 2003

Imagine "thousands and thousands of kids, different languages, different nationalities" gathered in one place to compete for three days in chess games that last as long as three hours.

" It's very intense, " said Norton's Elizabeth Poggi, as she described the scene her young sons were part of at the recent U.S. Chess Federation's national scholastic championship tournament, where they represented Sage School, an independent school located in Foxboro. "The kids have pretty good focus. "

Jonathan Poggi, 12, and his 8-year-old brother, Chris, must have pretty good focus, for the 4 to 6 hours per week they spend playing chess (Jonathan is "working toward ten hours per week" ) helped both boys' Sage teams nail first place national titles when they traveled to Atlanta, Georgia to match wits with other young chess talents.

Sara Itani of Easton was also part of the Sage group.

"I was excited and scared at the same time in Georgia," said Chris.

Jonathan said he was "very excited to be in Atlanta with my teammates. I did not feel nervous, just excited. I was confident that we would do well, and we all supported each other."

Jonathan and Sara Itani played on the seventh-grade level team with two schoolmates from Sharon and Newton. At the end of the six-round tournament, the Sage team walked away with the national championship for their grade level.

More than 2,000 top chess talents from nearly 700 school teams in 42 states competed. Keen competition sweetens a win, as does successful defense of a title. The Sage seventh-graders, last year's sixth-grade national champs, kept the school's name on the first place trophy.

Elizabeth Poggi recalled last year's tournament, Jonathan's first. They didn't expect a first place win.
"We were hoping for top ten nationally," she said. "When the Sage sixth-graders took the title, it was just unbelievable. "

This year, with confidence and experience along for the trip, the team's goal was loftier than making top ten. They left for Atlanta saying, "We've got to defend our title. "

Check and mate.

Second-grader Chris Poggi, who says what he enjoys most about chess is "thinking hard and winning, " played with Sage teammates from Sharon, Newton, and Brookline. This was the second-graders' first trip to the nationals, and some older brother karma must have rubbed off. They, too, took first place and brought home a national champs trophy that's bigger than some of the players.

These wins are special because, while many competing schools have chess as part of their curricula, Sage's program is a voluntary after school club supervised by parents. Winning tournaments requires the player focus Elizabeth Poggi talked about, but getting to them requires commitment from both students and parents, who fund the trips out of pocket, according to Melanie Shaw, Sage's public relations director. This year, said Shaw, the chess players paid dues so they could bring in an instructor "to go over strategy" to help in their tournament bids.

Shaw described the intensity young players bring to the game. Where kids interested in music may take piano lessons, chess-playing kids may have coaches. "They have the same kind of passion that music or art students bring to their work. It's completely absorbing. The passion often runs in a family. Typically, there's a parent who teaches them," said Shaw.

Love of chess is a leaf on Jonathan and Chris Poggi's family tree. Elizabeth's dad played.

" Not a day went by that I didn't see him at the chess board," she remembered. "It's definitely in the blood, so to speak." She keeps "an image in her head" of her father playing chess with a man, for days, as the family made a shipboard Atlantic crossing between New York and France when Elizabeth was 5. "I didn't know who he was. I just remember him as the man who kept taking my father away. "

The man was Bobby Fischer.

Jonathan's grandfather passed away before his grandson was born, but Jonathan called on him for inspiration during the national championship. He told his mom that during the tournament he'd ask, "Please, Grandpa Van Doren, tell me what to do next. Help me know what the right move is. "

He's sure his grandpa heard him. "I think he helped me," he told Elizabeth.

Sage is a day school for academically talented kids and draws students from nearly 50 communities. There are currently four students from Norton, five from Easton, and 10 from Mansfield, which, according to Shaw, is "one of our top three towns." She described Sage as a place full of happy, excited kids who are "free to grow."

The Poggi brothers have interests beyond chess. School and family rank high, and both play soccer. Swimming, basketball, travel, and building things with K'NEX and Star Wars' Legos rank up there, too.

Besides the Poggis, Sage School has a few other chess family dynasties in the making, including the Rice brothers from Newton, and Sharon's Andrew Wang and his younger sister, Clara. A.J. and Jack Rice and Andrew Wang were on the first place teams that left Atlanta with national titles.

Clara Wang was in Atlanta, too. She played solo, and finished in 10th place nationally. She's in kindergarten.

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