'Check' Your Ego at the Door
when Playing the California Youth Chess League
April, 2008 - Issue #42
If thoughts were like voices, the sound reverberating from CYCL headquarters Wednesday and Friday evenings would be deafening. The clamor would be unbearable.

Instead, the room, meticulously arranged to fit enough chessboards for the 30 or so boys and girls who come for lessons, is almost silent.

The boys and girls who train and play with the California Youth Chess League don't need to be told when their kings are attacked. They don't have to announce it when an opponent has lost.

In most cases, they know it's coming long before it happens. Their young minds, acquiring knowledge faster than they ever will again, already see threats and opportunities on the board that their moms and dads cannot. And so the evening unfolds quietly while battles smolder at every station.

Above the din, one voice can be heard - the one that belongs to CYCL founder and teacher Jay Stallings. An expert-level player for decades, Stallings, 41, has been teaching the art of the game to SCV youngsters since 1994.

You could say it is his passion, but that's inadequate. Better to say teaching chess is his ministry. The lessons he teaches at league headquarters at the Valencia industrial center extend beyond how to win a board game. They encompass much more than strategy and tactics, opening and endgames. "Chess teaches focus," he'll tell you. "It teaches concentration."

He'll also tell you that chess is more physical than people think. In an arena where games routinely last for four to five hours, staying focused requires stamina - especially during tournaments. "The guys who are at the top of their game are in incredible shape," he says. "You have to be to be able to make it through the tournaments. I tell our chess team that playing in a tournament is like taking the SAT six times in a row." Does that qualify chess as a sport? Not in most people's minds. But then, even poker has found a permanent home on ESPN.

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects about chess is that luck isn't involved. Games involve a small handful of inflexible and unforgiving elements: a board with 64 black and white squares, two "armies" of 16 pieces each, and a clock. In chess, there are tough losses, but there are no bad beats. Opponents may blunder, but no one gets bailed out on the river.

It is for this world that Stallings prepares his students. He teaches them opening strategy. He teaches them pawn position. He teaches them to calculate and visualize in their heads and he teaches them to perform under the pressure of time. He also teaches them that, no matter what, you shake your opponent's hand after a game.

He doesn't however, teach parents. "I teach kids from 4 to 18," he says. "But we're glad to have the parents in the back of the class. Kids' minds are like sponges. They usually pick up stuff way before the adults do."

Through the CYCL, Stallings teaches evening classes to players of all levels. The best players join Stallings for team tournaments across southern California and beyond. This year, the National Junior High Tournament takes place in Dallas, TX, the National Elementary Tournament is in Pittsburgh, PA and the national High School Tournament takes place in Atlanta, GA.

Because the CYCL is a nonprofit organization, Stallings is able to offer chess instruction at local schools in and around the SCV. Currently, he teaches chess at 18 elementary and junior high schools.

Schools appreciate Stallings because what he teaches transfers so easily to the classroom. CYCL students perform well at school.

One night a week, Stallings opens the CYCL to newcomers of all ages. The group gathers at Vincenzo's Pizzeria on Lyons Avenue in Newhall from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. You don't have to be a member to play. But you may want to check your ego at the door. Most likely, your opponents will be youngsters. They're not old enough to drive, but they can drive your king all over the board. Still, says Stallings, the adults trickle in.

"Over the past six months, we've probably had 15 to 20 different adults come in to play," he says. "But they never come at the same time, so they're stuck playing the kids. And it's no fun losing to kids. Sometimes they will call first. I'll warn them, but they say, 'Yeah, but I'm pretty good.' They just can't believe [they'll lose to a kid] until they see their pieces coming off the board."
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