Nov. 27, 2008 press release - Chess is a growing phenomenon in Sparta

Chess is a growing phenomenon in Sparta

Students have fun while learning critical thinking skills and competing in state-level tournaments

By Tyler Collins

SPARTA — “The club initially started out with only 15 members in 2002. Now we boast over 150 members throughout the elementary schools, Mohawk school, middle school, and the high school.” This quote comes from Tom Murray, who isn’t the head of a soccer or football club — he coaches chess.

Murray, a chess champion himself, now shares his passion for the game by running the Sparta Chess Club — which has grown exponentially over the past seven years. All over the country, there has been a rise in tournaments and competitions on the local, state, and national levels. Murray has organized and directed the Sussex County Middle School tournament for the last five years and runs four chess tournaments in Sparta annually. On the county level, the Sparta High School Varsity team has been undefeated for the last three years in head-to-head matches.

Sparta High School even placed fifth in the New Jersey High School Championship. The Sparta club is a prime example of how interest in chess has grown in New Jersey. Murray has committed over 60 students from Sparta to participate in the NJ Grade Level Championship. The state-level tournaments attract hundreds of participants from all over New Jersey. The Sparta High School team placed in the top five in the state tournament for the last five years, and the team won six NJ Grade Level Championships. On the national chess level, the Sparta High School team has nine top-ten finishes with numerous players recognized individually. The high school team has just participated in the New England Championships at Mt. Snow, Vermont, and is planning to attend National Scholastic Championships in April in Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville hosts one of the largest chess tournaments in the country, boasting an over 6000-person attendance.

Although chess is a competitive activity, Murray teaches his students to always have fun, focus on their game, take their time and to outthink their opponents. But it’s not just fun and games. Being a chess champion can help a student pay for his college education. “One of our varsity players last year received a scholarship from the US Chess Trust ... There are over $50,000 in scholarships to be awarded at Nashville,” said Murray. As a coach, Murray loves working with the kids and watching them achieve their goals, especially when a player reaches a higher level of reasoning. The academic benefits include self-reliance, critical thinking, and problem solving. Murray said, “We have some players with a variety of special needs, and their achievement is particularly rewarding.” Murray believes chess was, and still is, the best thinking game ever invented.

A financial planner with Ameriprise by day, Murray puts in eight to ten volunteer hours a week working with the chess club. He now has a number of parent volunteers who, he said, have begun to play the game themselves. In response, Murray is planning a first-time parent/child event in February. While the adults will not be pitted against the kids (most likely as a mercy to the parents), they will play side-by-side. This past Sunday, three Sparta kindergartners participated in a tournament where they came in first in the state.