CHICAGO — FOR chess champion Joel Fuentes, getting to school is a game of wits.
Every day, Joel climbs out of a dim, inner-city basement he shares with his brother and welfare-recipient mother, navigates rival gang territories on Chicago's West Side, and ducks through a metal detector into Orr High School.
But upstairs in Room 207, the Orr chess team's practice room, Joel finds a haven: a place of encouragement, challenge, and "tough love" that has fostered his leap from despairing teenager to one of the best high school chess players in the nation.
"I try to provide a loving environment and stop the trouble before it gets in the door," says the school's chess coach, Tom Larson, a bulldozer of a man who stands vigil in the doorway of Room 207. "If anybody hits me, they just bounce off," he adds with a laugh.
At Orr, gang violence erupts almost daily, dropouts outnumber graduates, test scores fall far below state norms, and 75 percent of students live in poverty. But the award-winning chess team testifies to how a little extra attention not only can keep youths like Joel Fuentes out of trouble, but can also make them stars.
This year, the Orr Chessmen seized the Chicago chess title, won the Illinois championship for 11th and 12th graders, and placed third out of more than 250 schools competing in the National Scholastic K-12 grade chess championships last month in Syracuse, N.Y.
This from a squad of street-wise, inner-city underdogs, who come to Mr. Larson lacking any experience or special talent for chess. Many of them have mediocre grades, he says. They chase girls and horse around in the halls. They joined the team initially not to win, but to escape boredom.
"There was nothing to do at lunch, so I used to come up here. Larson always kept the door open for me," recalls team captain Ben Little, who signed up freshman year. "But when I started beating Larson, I started feeling good about myself, so I kept playing."
Larson contends that despite the reputation of chess as an obscure, ancient game for the brainy, anyone can become a "decent" player. How? "Books, computers, and practice, practice, practice," he says. A math teacher, he started Orr's chess program in 1986 with five players. Now he has 80 players in the varsity and freshman-sophomore programs. About 120 students sign up each year.
After starting from scratch, Ben, a senior, and Joel, a junior, are now two of the strongest players on the team, Larson says. Both are state champions and ranked third nationally for their grade levels. "Ben is the anchor of the team," Larson says.
The team, in turn, helps to anchor Ben. The challenge, focus, and fun offered by chess spills over into classwork, improving problem-solving skills, raising grade averages, and simply encouraging the players to stay in school.
"A lot of the kids who live in this kind of neighborhood don't get motivated," says Rosie Calhoun, dean of pupil services at Orr. "Chess gives them a reason to come to school every day and do well." For example, she says, Ben will be the first person from his extended family to graduate from Orr on time.
Indeed, some lawmakers - citing research showing that chess bolsters creativity, strategic thinking, and problem-solving abilities - say the game should be included in school curricula.
In 1992, New Jersey passed a law to allow chess to be used in public-school instruction. New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky is currently pushing legislation that would establish a chess curriculum for New York public schools.
Better math scores
In Canada, some 300,000 grade schoolers study chess as a separate unit of a math program that emphasizes problem solving. Those students score on average 15 to 20 percent better on standardized math tests than students who don't have chess in their math curriculum, says Larry Bevand of the Chess and Math Association in Montreal.
In Chicago, the success of Orr's bootstrap chess team has also given youths like Joel greater self-esteem, while shaking up the school's reputation as "a dumping ground."
"Over the years, our image has improved, and the chess team has really helped it," Ms. Calhoun says. "The teachers realize they are not working with dummies, and the students realize it too." Sitting in front of a row of chessboards in Room 207, Ben sums up the team's success another way: "When everyone started noticing we were winning, we became cool."
More important, he says, chess has taught him a thing or two about life. "It developed a little patience in me. By playing chess, I've learned to wait," Joel says. After graduation, he hopes to attend Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind., which he visited during a chess competition.
Slapping down the timer on a chess clock, Ben grins as he trounces Tom Fineberg, the Chicago Public Schools Chess League liaison, for the third time in half an hour. "This isn't my day," sighs the gray-bearded Mr. Fineberg, a chess tournament director.
Leaning back in his chair and pushing back a knitted cap, Ben, waxes philosophical. "Chess is like life," he says . "You have to look around before you move ahead. You have to make decisions and stick with them - for the future and for now."