Solon parent Tony Dunlap has never met a chessboard he did not like. His like – make that ‘love’ for the game – is evident in the Solon School District. Dunlap’s coaching helped the Solon High School chess team of 9th and 10th graders, take home the state title, held at Gilmour Academy in Gates Mills, May 3-4.
“I was pretty confident that my high school chess team would win the state championship because the 10th graders on the team had been grade level state champions since they were in the 7th grade," Dunlap said. "They finished 5th in the nation at last year’s Super National Chess Tournament in Nashville, Tenn."
In addition to the team’s championship win, team member Lawrence Liu was named the Individual Ohio State High School Champion. He defeated two of his friends and a Shaker Heights player, who happened to be one of Dunlap’s students in Kindergarten.
Liu has been playing chess for eight years, but he’s played competitively for only four years. Even his two friends he defeated— Joel Jaffe and Connor Keuchel helped strengthened his style of play. Grateful for the win, Liu admits his reaction was subdued. “I didn’t really have that big of a reaction. I always try to play the best that I can, and for this tournament, my best just happened to be better than everybody else's best.”
Coach Dunlap’s reaction to Liu’s win -- “I was very happy to see Lawrence [Liu] win the championship just as I would have if either one of my students had won," he said. “Lawrence’s play was exceptionally strong. He was the only player to finish with a perfect 6 out of 6 points.”
Dunlap added that ninth-grader Ian Golias also had a good showing, upsetting three higher rated chess players during the tournament. “If I had not joined Mr. Dunlap's chess club, I never would have had the wonderful experience playing in chess tournaments,” Ian said of Dunlap’s leadership.
The Solon team consists of about 20 students who attend regular weekly meetings and on average 7-11 students compete in various chess tournaments throughout the year. To prepare for tournaments, the students practice playing chess online and they meet weekly at Solon High School, under the guidance of Dunlap and test their skills against each other. The students realize how the benefits of chess expand beyond the game itself.
“Chess improves your ability to focus for long periods of time which helps a lot during long tests,” said Connor Keuchel. “While playing chess you always try to calculate moves in your head to see your opponent's plan or if the move in which you plan on making is a good one. This can be applied to mental math because analyzing chess positions and doing math problems in your head are very similar.”
“It’s really fun and it is healthy for your brain,” teammate Joel Jaffe said, adding that the game too helps with analytical thinking, concentration and focus.
Dunlap first introduced chess to his son when he was in grade school. “I was trying to teach Tony Jr. how to play [chess] and I thought he would learn better with his peers. It also was a way for me to give back to the youth in my community,” he added. From his son, Dunlap began teaching chess in 2000 at the YMCA in Solon and two years later, moved to Orchard Middle School. Along with Orchard, he now coordinates chess programs at Roxbury and Parkside elementary schools and Solon Middle School.
Within the schools, Dunlap coaches various siblings—one child might be in 8th grade; the other in 1st grade. Cousins also share in the chess club. “I mention the family connection because one of the factors of someone being successful in many endeavors is having a good support system and there isn’t a better support system than family. My chess teams have been successful because the students like each other and they support each other as family.”
Dunlap's fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, has been an extended family, as the members have supported the chess programs and initiated an annual chess tournament held in October in the city of Cleveland trying to attract more students to competitive scholastic chess. In October of 2013, the fraternity brought Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley to Cleveland.
Alpha has given college scholarships to high achieving chess players. Some colleges offer chess scholarships. The educational opportunities with chess that are available, cause Dunlap to ask the question, "why aren't more kids playing chess?"
After seeing Solon's results, he hopes more students invest in chess!