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Sherwood chess team fights its way out of the corner

The Sherwood High Chess Team will compete at the U.S. Chess Federation National Tournament
by: Jonathan House, MAKE A MOVE — Jacob Brooks makes a move on a giant chessboard during a fund-raiser for the Sherwood High School chess team at Middleton Elementary School on Monday.

SHERWOOD - Sometimes chess players are scrappy. They cling to the squares, dancing pieces around the board running from the opposing army.

Other times, players are death defying. They wait as an opponent ponders a move for 20 minutes. And once the move is executed, within five seconds the player makes his attack.

It's all psychological, admitted Chris Griffin, a senior and captain of the Sherwood High School Chess Team.

Approaching chess tournaments more like poker games, the Sherwood team enters competitions with one thing in mind -you're playing against yourself.

The longest chess game Griffin remembers playing was 4½ hours long. He was a third-grader competing in a regional tournament. And as soon as the game began, he knew he was in trouble. His opponent played aggressive, and, as Griffin remembers it, put him 'up against the rails.'

'I was just staying alive for 4 to 4½ hours,' he said.

Today Griffin and the rest of the Sherwood High team wear stone-faced expressions and walk into tournaments without the help of a coach. But the Sherwood team, according to Griffin, has gained ground in its division as 'a force to be reckoned with.'

'We came out of nowhere,' Griffin said.

The back-to-back state chess champs will compete for the first time at the U.S. Chess Federation National High School Championships in April in Atlanta, Ga. Seven members will compete at nationals: Griffin, junior Michael Riches, senior Matthew Chhay, freshman Jackson Wright, freshman Conor Scoggin, junior Kameron Beeks and senior Charles Meier.

Team parents are holding fund-raisers to help pay for the trip to nationals which will cost the team about $6,000. Before a fund-raising event on Monday at Middleton Elementary School, the team had raised about $3,000. (Anyone interested in contributing to the team's efforts can call Julie Scoggin at 503-625-4156.)

The team is expecting some real competition at the national tournament. But as always, their biggest opponents are still themselves. Unlike elementary and middle school teams, high school teams seem to function as a low priority for high school students.

In 2007, a Sherwood player withdrew from the state competition at the last minute. Today team members still grumble about the player who blew them off for a Nickelback concert. But a wrestler with little experience in the game, who had signed up as an alternate, filled in. The wrestler ended up winning, and the team won state. Griffin called the team's first state win in 2007 a miracle.

Griffin has been captain of the Sherwood High School Chess Team for five years - he was asked to join the team while he was still in middle school.

'Lots of people think chess is just a bunch of nerds, but I've never had anyone play chess, and then have them say, 'Oh, that was boring,'' Griffin said.

To the Sherwood chess team, the Royal Game is anything but boring. Riches described the euphoria one gets from getting up from a two-hour chess game and also the snap back to reality when the words 'check mate' ring in the air.

The team members laugh at their own memories of games where looks of panic streaked across opponents' faces as the realization of a loss crept in.

A Willamette High School player once tried to intimidate Griffin with an unorthodox opening (a move not typically played). Griffin simply followed suit with his own unorthodox move. After 100 minutes and 44 moves, not a single piece had been taken off the board. Each player lingered in their own corners on their own sides of the board. But three minutes later, the board was clear, and Griffin had won.

'You don't play to win,' Griffin said. 'You play to make your position better. Basically, you're playing against yourself.'