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MORE THAN A GAME

October 12, 2017

By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools

Some of the world’s most competitive people hate losing more than they enjoy winning.

Eric Ramsay has never been the most competitive member of the Central Magnet chess team.

Last year at the state tournament, Ramsay grew increasingly frustrated with himself. A pair of his opponents – both of whom rated much higher than Ramsay – intimated the less experienced player into hurrying his moves by fanning their impatience.

Both would quickly play their move.

Then walk away as if they didn’t even need to pay attention.

“It worked,” recalled Ramsay, who admitted he was rattled. “They knew the best move to what I’m going to play and I didn’t even know what I was going to play.”

He was bothered by the way he lost.

But he also realized he was bothered more so by simply losing.

Yes, it was a cavalier approach on their part, Ramsay vowed to never let that happen again.

He recognized a gap in knowledge and spent months studying the game of chess for many more hours than he had before.

He specifically studied how to play a gambit against the French defense.

In the last game of the SuperNationals tournament his opponent played a French defense and then accepted Ramsay’s gambit all the way through the game.

“At about move 10 they blundered,” Ramsay said, “and it was a forced checkmate. Just knowing that my best tournament ever would end with my favorite opening tied it all together.”

He added, “I don’t like to lose and chess has taught me that if I don’t want to lose I have to work, study and spend time thinking.” 

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Igor Zhislin started a program at Central Magnet school in the fall of 2010 and quickly established a second chess program at McFadden School of Excellence the following school year.

And make no mistake, they are chess programs. Not clubs.

At Central and McFadden, both programs take chess seriously.

However, at the elementary level, Zhislin said it is important to manage expectations with enjoyment because it’s still an afterschool activity for the students.

“We put an emphasis on commitment,” he said. “It’s an educational program.”

“(But) a chess club,” he added for contrast, “is basically an informal gathering.”

Zhislin said there are about 60 students enrolled in the two programs.

Beginners start by learning the rules, which Zhislin said are relatively easy, before teaching everyone “how the pieces move.” From there they develop strategy.

The faculty adviser at Central is Nick Horton.

As an advisor, Horton dedicates his afternoons and weekends to helping develop student discipline and encourage excellence in chess as well as the classroom. He also helps to coordinate tournaments and schedules practice time.

“Igor has a unique set of skills that makes him an excellent coach and teacher for chess,” Horton said, “skills that I don’t have and I value that.”

Zhislin grew up in the Ukrain, where he reached a level of playing that corresponds to master’s level in the United States, before coming to Murfreesboro to attend Middle Tennessee State University.

He earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics.

A longtime supporter of the Blue Raiders athletic programs, Zhislin wishes he could get back to playing competitive chess but enjoys teaching and coaching chess.

His players have won at every level of competition, including local and regional as well as state and national tournaments.

Central’s chess program has been quite successful despite being a relatively new sport.

Last year, K-12 individual Under 1600 claimed third at the SuperNationals and the Under 800 team placed 10th. It was the fifth consecutive year in which Central finished among the Top 5 at a national tournament.

And the K-9 Under 1250 individual finished first at the SuperNationals in 2013.

In 2014, Central traveled to Atlanta, where the K-8 Under 1250 team finished first at the Junior High Nationals.

“I was in Atlanta, but I had 80 physics students on a three-day field trip,” recalled Horton, who followed closely online. “The thing about chess is that it takes a long time so it drilled patience into both the students and coaches.”

Horton described it as “three very long days. Intense. We’re talking 12- to 14-hour days.”

Zhislin said, “I kept reminding the kids to take it one game at a time.”

Patience.

Focus.

Consistency.

Those are three huge lessons chess has taught Ramsay and freshman Lizbeth Lozano in the classroom.

In promoting the chess program at Central, Horton and Zhislin mention six ways in which the game impacts academics.

It develops problem-solving, critical and creative thinking. It strengthens memory, reading, language and mathematical capabilities. It trains students to think logically and efficiently. It improves concentration and discipline and timely decisions. It provides cultural enrichment, encourages social skills and promotes good sportsmanship. It also enhances pattern recognition.

“I don’t grow frustrated whenever I don’t understand something,” said Lozano, who explained her studies have vastly improved because “in chess, before you make a move you need to think about it for a long time.”

PHOTOS / Provided
MAIN PHOTO: Sixth grader Cooper Olsen (R, in the Nike visor) takes part in an open practice at Central Magnet for both members and non-members of the Chess Program. SECOND: Eric Ramsay during last year’s awards ceremony at the SuperNationals. THIRD: Lizbeth Lozano competes at a tournament last spring. Nick Horton said that Lozano picked the game up quickly, while Igor Zhislin described Lozano as “a consistent player.” FOURTH: A group of Central Magnet chess players pose with an array of trophies won over the past seven seasons.