Calvin Tetzlaff isn’t always comfortable jumping into conversations.
There is at least one group, however, in which the La Center High School junior knows he can engage in a chat at any point, and that’s on the school’s chess team.
“These weren’t people I knew too well before the team, but chess is something all of us can talk about,” Tetzlaff said.
All of that talking paid off for La Center this year, as the school finished first out of 12 teams in the second division of the Oregon High School Chess Association’s Portland League in their first year as a competitive team. There is no Southwest Washington league, although they did compete this year against Skyview and Lewis and Clark high schools.
The group competed in one event last year, the Washington High School Chess Association State Championship tournament, where they signed up as an independent team and finished 26th out of 26 schools. They spent much of that year learning how to play, as a lot of members had limited chess experience.
“After lunch, I would usually hang out in the library, but one day I saw some kids playing chess and it looked interesting,” Tetzlaff said. “I had an understanding of how the game worked, but I was incompetent in strategy.”
As the players learned more about the game, practices turned from friendly matches to a “competitive onslaught,” said senior Cody Maitland. Sophomore Chase Jamieson said many players read books and watched videos on chess strategy.
“What I like about chess is there’s so much depth to it,” said Timm DiStefano, the team’s coach. “It’s endless. You can really analyze chess, and build off concepts.”
Friday and Saturday, the team will once again compete at the state championship, and as of Wednesday, heading into the competition at Issaquah High School, La Center is ranked 11th out of 17 teams signed up for the competition.
DiStefano, a counselor at La Center, started playing chess after college, and took to the game while working at a youth detention center, where he would play with one of the kids. He went to work at Pateros High School, east of Lake Chelan, and started a chess team there. When he started at La Center in 2012, he left two chess boards out in the student services room during lunch to see if anyone was interested. Within a month, so many students were playing that DiStefano had to leave out six boards, and the student services room was unofficially nicknamed the chess room.
“It was one of those things where you don’t realize you were missing it until you do it,” DiStefano said. “The kids really wanted to do it. I provided the supplies and space. They provided the enthusiasm.”
Students played during lunch and sometimes after school, and at the end of that school year, members of the group spoke at a school board meeting asking to form an official team. The chess team started last year as a hybrid sports team and club, as they compete in tournaments but practices are open to any student. They also sold candles, raising more than $1,000 for new clocks and registration fees. They practice using some of the roughly 20 boards DiStefano owns.
In addition to branching out to compete at other schools, DiStefano set up a mentoring program between high school students and kids at La Center Elementary School. A few times a year, about five high school students and DiStefano go to the elementary school and teach roughly 40 elementary students how to play chess.
“That’s the missing piece right now: getting them started early,” DiStefano said. “If we can start teaching them the game younger, it will only help build the program.”