SARATOGA SPRINGS The preschoolers, kindergartners and first-graders who filled a conference room Sunday morning were surprisingly attentive.
They sat in front of chessboards, listening to a woman in a bright yellow shirt shout out a lengthy list of directions.
“Does everybody know what ‘touch-move’ is?” she asked.
“Yes,” they chorused, squirming just slightly in their seats.
The kids were the youngest participants in the 46th annual New York State Scholastic Chess Championships held Saturday and Sunday at the Saratoga Hilton.
More than 700 students from 12th grade on down gathered to compete in the weekend-long event, many of them members of teams from about 70 schools across the state.
Between competitions they clogged the halls, playing computerized games of chess on iPads or games on real boards with friends and family.
Some of the participants are among the top players in the country, noted tournament director Steve Immitt.
In an age of video games, the old-fashioned board game is gaining in popularity, he said.
This year’s tournament drew about 200 more players than last year’s.
The appeal is in the sense of accomplishment the game brings, Immitt speculated.
“Since it’s a situation where there’s no luck involved in the game, everything you accomplish is because you did it,” he explained.
In most tournaments, there are no age restrictions, so children often compete against adults.
“We’ve had players in their 80s and 90s playing in divisions with players who are like 6 and 7,” he said. “I think chess is one of the few areas where a kid can actually dominate an adult, and in life you don’t get to do that.”
The Scholastic Chess Championships event was just for kids, ranging from the focused and intense to those who were just there for fun.
Richard Greene, 14, of Buffalo, was there with a team of 10 from Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School. It was the first state tournament he had ever been to, and he had just won his first game.
“I don’t care if I win, but I want the team to do good,” he said. “We’ve never won first place at states, so we really want to win. We’re in the lead right now.”
Greene said he enjoys the variety the game offers.
“There’s just so many different ways you can do it, so many different strategies. There’s always something to learn and you can always get better. It’s like never-ending. I just like the game, how it makes you think,” he explained.
The tension was tangible in the room where the junior and senior high school championship games were held. Students lined up at banquet tables stared at chess boards with looks of intense concentration on their faces, in the midst of games that could go on for several hours.
The mood was lighter in the first-grade-and-under room, where games were limited to a half-hour and the kids weren’t quite as focused. Some yawned, others got sidetracked looking at other players’ chessboards; one girl picked her nose. But many moved their chess pieces with confidence and studied the game with a focus surprising to see in such young kids.
Michael Simon Lux, a first-grader from Manhattan, started playing in kindergarten.
“I think it’s good for brain development,” said his mom, Tracey Simon, who also plays chess. “I think it’s good to teach them it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about playing, and also, there’s a team. He has his school team, so he plays for his team as well as individually.”
Eight-year-old Melody Loya of Bainbridge was waiting in the hall for her 5-year-old brother Blaise, who was playing with the first-grade-and-under group.
The siblings started playing the game on the computer and never got a real chessboard until September of last year.
In her hand, Melody held chess pieces — a king and a knight — to give to her brother when he finished. She said she thought he would win.
“We practice like every day,” she said, adding that she never gets bored with chess.
Out in a crowded common area, a group of eight boys surrounded two chessboards set up on the carpet, happily engaged in Bughouse chess, a variation on the traditional game.
Gowtham Puviarasu, a seventh-grader from Watervliet, was among the group. He’d already won two chess games during Sunday’s competition and was hoping to win a couple more. The 12-year-old has been playing for three years and said he has won tournaments before.
He broke away from the animated game on the floor to talk about why he likes chess so much.
“I think chess makes you smarter and it helps your mind grow so you can think more,” he explained.