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Queen of Kids’ Chess is Johns Hopkins Doc

Queen of Kids’ Chess is Johns Hopkins Doc

Two hundred chess players concentrate in near dead silence, the city championship on the line.

A player with a Hello Kitty backpack is locked in mortal chess combat with a player whose sneakers have green and orange lights on them. A tiny player planning his next move kneels on his folding chair, gnawing absently on a captured rook.

The elementary school division of the Baltimore City Kids Chess League is holding its annual end-of-the-school-year tournament. Teams from public schools across the city have gathered on the Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus for a one-day tournament to crown Baltimore's best first-through-fifth-grade chess players.

Founded 13 years ago by Johns Hopkins gastroenterologist Linda Lee, the chess league gets larger every year. In 2016, more than 1,000 students -- from kindergarteners to high school seniors -- participated. The league consists of more than 50 schools from city neighborhoods that range from well-to-do to severely impoverished.

A few times a week during the school year, students practice their chess with coaches after school or at the lunch table. They've competed in various matches and tournaments around Baltimore and today's tournament has gathered the top elementary school players in the city.

Although Lee doesn't play the game, she appreciates how it can help develop mental skills. "I've seen kids increase their ability to concentrate and to handle complex problems because they play chess,” she says.

She created the league in 2003 after her son noticed a huge chess trophy in the home of an out-of-town friend.

"He said, 'Mom, I want one of those!'," Lee says. "But looking around Baltimore, I found nothing in town for kids' chess."

In 2004, she established a nonprofit organization to manage the league and has received grants from The Abell Foundation, a major funder of the project for more than 10 years.

"Linda Lee's longstanding commitment and passion for the chess club has really moved this forward," says Bonnie Legro, Senior Program Officer at the Baltimore Abell Foundation.

In the years since 2006, Abell's support has increased from $25,000 a year to $85,000.  Legro says that Lee has leveraged that funding so that the Baltimore City Schools contribute another $85,000 to league operations.

In 2008, Lee hired Steve Alpern, a retired Baltimore school administrator, to serve as the league's commissioner and lead ambassador, overseeing league operations and visiting schools to excite kids about chess.

He says her effort has affected thousands of Baltimore kids' lives. "Some of our graduating seniors have been with our league for 11 years and are getting college scholarships."

In 2010, the Baltimore Kids Chess League brought home a national championship when Baltimore Polytechnic Institute high school took first place in the National Chess Championship held in Columbus, Ohio.

And last year, teams from Baltimore City dominated the Maryland State Schools Chess Championships, taking first place in four of the five divisions. 

City Champions

It's no less exciting for elementary school competitors when Alpern steps on stage to announce Baltimore’s 2016 winners. Students from North Bend Elementary, Govans Elementary, Midtown, Armistead Gardens and other neighborhood schools across the city take home prizes.

Today's tournament is the last until next school year -- the middle school and high school competitions are already complete, with Hamilton and Baltimore City College High School taking home the high honors.

Alpern pauses dramatically before announcing the school that has won the overall citywide championship. Before he can complete the word "Highlandtown," a loud squeal erupts. Students and coaches from the heavily-Hispanic East Baltimore school are beginning to celebrate their big win.

Lee beams as the children pose proudly next to the four-foot trophy that will grace their school's lobby.

"These tournaments make me feel very fulfilled," she says. "After all these years, there's still nothing like seeing kids' faces light up."

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