It was a rollercoaster season for first-year head coach Cassy Richardson’s Royster Middle School chess team.
Navigating protocols resulting from the global COVID-19 pandemic, tournaments were completely virtual. Royster competed in four tournaments during the fall semester and an additional four after Christmas break.
“I’ve learned that chess is a lot bigger deal here than what you think it would be,” Richardson said, noting the team comprised 20 students in grades six through eight. “I’m astonished by the amount of students who are very interested in chess and want to join the team.”
Royster concluded its season by finishing runner-up at the State tournament March 13, an all-day event consisting of six rounds.
While it was ultimately a successful outcome for Royster, Richardson said her squad was not thrilled with the virtual tournament format.
“A few adapted nicely to the virtual format,” she said, “but most really struggled with it.”
Richardson said her team prefers competing at in-person meets. She noted that they also enjoy the travel, and it affords them opportunities to cultivate new friendships in other towns.
“It’s just fun to get them outside of the district, and let them play a game they love to play and feel like they’re good at,” she said. “The virtual format doesn’t feel as much like a championship tournament. It feels more like you’re just practicing.”
An assistant coach on the team last year, Richardson said she’s not “super-great” at chess.
“I know how to play, and am getting to a point where I can teach it,” she said. “It’s more about me being with the kids.”
Richardson emphasizes practice above all else.
“You’ve got to practice, you have to keep playing. My main goal is for them to continue to get better,” she said, adding that her top players utilize various strategies. Some prefer to target opponents’ bishops, while others like to go hone in on rooks or the queen.
Richardson said her fondest memory from this season was witnessing major strides made by a sixth-grader who opened the season on a long losing streak. He then turned things around, winning big at a recent tournament.
“I was like ‘Oh, my gosh! What happened? This is amazing,’” she said. “I was so proud of him, and he was so excited. And he’s not the only one. There have been so many kids who have really shown improvement.”
Richardson summed up the season as “crazy and different.”
“Ultimately, it was very successful and one to remember,” she said. “It was fun to get together with the kids every couple of days for practices after school. It’s something I look forward to, as I really enjoy being chess coach. These are my kids that I see every day and it’s something I get to do with them outside of school.”
RMS Principal Don Epps said he couldn’t be more pleased with the success of the program.
“I’m so proud of our RMS chess team for overcoming so many changes,” he said.
“And to be able to compete through a pandemic, while still having so much fun playing something they love.”
Epps said chess is a passion for Royster students, with the program being rich in tradition.
“They deserve so much respect for their dedication, along with how they represent our school in such a positive way,” he said.
“They signify what #ChasingGreatness is all about @RoysterProud!”