Tampa private school excels at chess

Travis Pillow
Michael Young with Munoz

Young talks strategy with seventh-grader Jonathan Munoz during class recently. Jonathan, 13, won first place at the recent state scholastic chess tournament. Photo by Sherri Ackerman

When fifth graders enroll at Tampa’s Academy Prep Center, they usually haven’t played chess before.

But they learn quickly, as a group of sixth- and seventh- graders showed when they traveled to a state chess tournament in Miami last weekend, and came home with a win.

They took the top two spots in their division, and four out of the top 10 in a field of about 50 students. The five students who entered in the K-8 Under-900 division all placed in the top 20, and their team brought home the state trophy (find the full results here).

Their private school caters exclusively to low-income students. It teaches all of them chess.

Michael Young, who teaches Academy Prep’s chess classes and coaches its teams, said learning the game can help students develop important skills: Focus, patience, pattern recognition, creative problem-solving.

It can also give them a chance to travel to other cities and compete with more affluent peers. The students who competed in the Florida State Scholastic chess Championship hadn’t been exposed to the game before they arrived at the school.

The K-8 Under-900 division is open to students in eighth grade or younger, who have ratings below 900. Chess ratings are based on wins in sanctioned matches.

Young in class

Michael Young drives home the importance of controlling the center of the chess board to fifth-grade girls at Tampa’s Academy Prep Center.

Three of the school’s more experienced players competed in the K-8 Open division and placed eighth out of 17 teams. Since the younger players’ ratings are likely to rise, some of them will likely compete in that division next year. Young, who offers chess programs at other Tampa-area schools, said he feels like a college basketball coach whose team is stacked with promising freshman and sophomores.

Academy Prep is known for pushing middle-school students toward prestigious high schools, and eventually to college. Chess competitions, and soon, the chance to compete in a national tournament, give them a chance to realize their potential.

“They have the same ability, and if we push them just like we push our own children, they will rise to the occasion,” said Lincoln Tamayo, the school’s headmaster.

Students at Academy Prep pay for tuition using tax credit scholarships, which are administered by non-profit organizations like Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post.

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