Nick Mack had never played chess before Christmas, and now he's part of a state championship team from Ottawa Hills.
Nick, 8, was one of four second graders from the Ottawa Hills Chess Club, organized last summer by the Office of Village Life, who traveled to Cuyahoga Falls, near Cleveland, on March 19 and won the highest team score among six teams with 22 players in the "nonrated" kindergarten-second grade age group.
"It's fun to play -- all the pieces, and the strategy," said Nick, who won four of his five tournament games, as did teammate Ishan Khare. Gareth Francis, and Max Bishop added five more match points to their team's total of 13, more than double the next highest team score.
Fifth-grader Dylan Francis, meanwhile, finished tied for first in his age group -- but was placed second on a tie-breaker -- and led fellow 10-year-olds Joey Boersma and Peter Wu to a third-place finish in their competition against six other teams with a combined 29 players.
Not bad for teams that didn't even exist a year ago.
"Boy, they've had just great success. It's been a lot of fun," said Shelly Jamieson, a co-director at the Office of Village Life, which started the children's chess program as a week-long camp last summer as part of a broader expansion of its offerings.
About a dozen children signed up last summer, followed by enrollment of 16 for after-school sessions in the fall, Ms. Jamieson said, but then it grew to 32 this winter.
"We were just doing chess classes," she said, but Coach Jim Van Vorhis, who co-founded the Great Lakes Chess Association and manages several chess clubs in northwest Ohio, saw enough talent among the players that he suggested some play competitively.
"We did well in some local competition, so I contacted their parents and said I thought they were good enough," Mr. Van Vorhis said.
Dylan is indisputably the club's most experienced player, having grown up in a household where both his father and grandfather play chess. He said he didn't really focus on the game until third grade, when he finished seventh in an open tournament at the school he then attended in Oak Park, Ill., outside Chicago.
"I realized I was pretty good at chess," Dylan said.
He joined his Illinois school's chess team as its youngest member and then, after his family moved to Ottawa Hills last summer, he finished first, second, and second in his first three tournaments in Ohio. He also has taken on a de facto peer teaching role within the club.
Younger brother Gareth "just quietly showed up one day and was a pretty decent player, so we're very proud of both of them," Julian Francis, the boys' father, said. Mr. Van Vorhis noted the two brothers don't play against each other, however, "because Dylan wants to teach, and [Gareth] doesn't accept that very well" from his older sibling.
Chess programs for grade-schoolers are rare, Mr. Van Vorhis said, but offer valuable lessons in logical thinking, concentration, and perseverance. In competitive play, there are no coaches or spectators in the room -- only a referee -- so the players have to think for themselves and argue their own disputes.
"When these guys play, there are no time-outs, and no do-overs," the coach said. "They make their own case if there is an illegal move or a dispute."
And while the upper-grades players play more advanced chess, Mr. Van Vorhis said, the club's younger members "are strongest for their age level."
Lisa Mack, Nick's mother, said chess has had an obvious effect on her son, who also plays ice hockey.
"He is very focused. He's always thinking about stuff," she said. "It's definitely a challenge for this age, to concentrate all day long."
Joey Boersma said he had known how to play chess for a long time, but "started loving it" at the camp last summer after his mother encouraged him to sign up.
"I definitely will keep playing," he vowed.
Max Bishop, meanwhile, said he was "happy to win, but also upset" about the Cuyahoga Falls tournament "because a kindergartner beat me," although that kindergartner was that age group's individual champion.
Next up for the chess club is a May 14 tournament in Sylvania, sponsored by the Springfield schools.
The Office of Village Life, meanwhile, plans to run summer chess-camp sessions during the last week of June for first-grade through eighth-grade players, Ms. Jamieson said. Morning sessions will be for beginners, while afternoon sessions will focus on more advanced players.