Students learn 'king's game' from local chess master

A former music teacher, school bus driver and chess champion now dedicates his time to teaching area students the ancient game of chess. Those students will be able to show off what they have learned in a torunament on April 13.

A former music teacher, school bus driver and chess champion now dedicates his time to teaching area students the ancient game of chess. Those students will be able to show off what they have learned in a torunament on April 13.

In May 1997, Milan Chorkovich became a Chess Master of the Canadian Chess League by beating 25 opponents, all at the same time. In December 1999, he won the Minnesota State Senior Championship, open to Minnesota State Chess Association members 54 and older. So far he has 17 trophies from various tournaments and competitions and is running out of room to display them in his home.

Chorkovich learned to play chess when he was young in the small village of Micije in Bosnia. Someone in his village received a chess set with pieces carved out of wood as a gift. His neighbor studied the pieces, went into the woods to collect material and spent days carving and painting pieces for others in the village. Chorkovich played all the time.

When he first came to Duluth from Bosnia more than 17 years ago, Chorkovich searched the city for a chess club. Unlike in Europe, where he said people play chess all the time, he found only a few people in Duluth who played at the public library.

"And when I saw only 5 or 6 people, I said let me do something for chess, and for kids, for kids," he said.


He spends at least an hour a day, Monday through Friday, teaching the after-school chess clubs at Chester Park, Congdon Park, Woodland, Nettleton, Ordean, Marshall and Lester Park.

In the library of Congdon Park Elementary, which will be the site of a tournament on April 13, Chorkovich was getting boards ready Tuesday afternoon just before class let out for the day.

"When they come, they jump and they can't wait to play," he said about the 32 students who are part of the club. Each club that Chorkovich teaches has between 10 and 32 students, except for Lester Park which has 63.

As he prepares for the chess club, he hangs a cloth board at the front of the room, which he uses to set up problems that the students will work through as a group, and places large vinyl chess boards on each table with a pile of plastic playing pieces in the middle of each.

The boards cost about $12 from the USA Chess Federation, and he says that once the board is purchased it can last a lifetime, as long as the pieces are not lost.

Soon the bell rings and students, mostly fourth and fifth graders, rush to the tables and get down to business. The pieces that were in a pile in the middle of each board are quickly put in place, ready for play. More students come in the library, Chorkovich claps his hands, and they all settle down.

He sets up an example that they went through last week and, in a Bosnian accent, he asks the group "Now, how can you make checkmate in one move?" Hands go up and some students jump out of their seats for a chance to answer. They bounce around and yell out, "I remember, I know."

A boy near the front answers correctly. "Congratulations, congratulations, this is right move," Chorkovich said. "Why?"



After each question and sample problem, the students have to explain the strategy that goes behind the correct moves.

After going through some more moves and strategy on defending and attacking, Chorkovich pairs up opponents according to the points from previous games. He sets up a game on the board, and they all move the pieces together to set up the beginning.

"What is the best move for black?" he asks. "Should black protect this pawn or something else? Why?"

Then he has the students finish the game.

Less than five minutes later, Jieming Liu, 11, a fifth grader, and his opponent, Peter Witzig, 11, also in fifth grade approach Chorkovich. "I won," Liu said.

"You beat him. Oh, you are really champion," Chorkovich said.

Jieming Liu and his brother Yiming Liu, 9, a fourth grader, have been the chess champions at the school since they began playing last year.


"They beat everybody; they amaze me," said Chorkovich. "Every problem I set up, they solve everything."

A few minutes later, another boy yelled out, "I got a checkmate." Chorkovich walks over to check. "Yeah, it's checkmate." he said.

Excitement rumbles through the group as Chorkovich mentions the upcoming tournament. "Yes. Oh my gosh, yeah," said Markcus Jahn, 9, a fourth grader, when he found out that he may be in the tournament. Only the top six players from each participating school will compete.

The sixth annual Duluth Schools Chess Championship will be held on Tuesday, April 13, at Congdon Park School, 3116 E. Superior St. Playing will begin at 3 p.m., but participants should arrive by 2:45 p.m. The fee is $7.50 per team. Teams of six players are invited from any school where Chorkovich doesn't already teach.

"The more schools, the more competition, the better," he said. "It's more interesting."

A scholastic tournament, including all area schools, will be held in May. At the scholastic tournament last year, the competition was so close that extra rounds had to be played to come up with a winner. "It was dramatic," said Chorkovich. There were so many players that they had to conduct games in the halls.

"We're so glad to have Milan here," said Congdon Park Principal Deborah Rickard. Congdon was the final winner in the elementary school category at the scholastic tournament last year. "We're going to try to hold on to our title," she said.

Rickard commented on how much the students like the after-school chess club. They like it so much that they all stayed to play on the Friday afternoon before Christmas vacation.


Chorkovich said that children benefit from chess because it keeps them out of trouble and helps them make decisions in life. "If you make a bad move in chess you lose. It is the same in life," said Chorkovich. "Chess players never make trouble, never go to court. They know what's what. If they don't think enough, they are loser."

He also said children's grades improve in school when they play chess. He began teaching his ex-wife's children chess when they were receiving B's and C's in grade school. "After only three months, they brought home report, and all A's," he said.

Matthew Uttermark, 10, a fifth grader at Congdon, said that he has been playing for about three years. "I just find it a fun game," he said. "It's relaxing."

Uttermark said that he has done better in school since he has been playing, especially in thinking through problems like in math. "You have to visualize everything carefully before you make your move."

Chorkovich has been teaching children in the local schools for the past seven years, but said that this year may be his last teaching the chess clubs. Because of health problems, Chorkovich had to quit his job as a school bus driver, and he teaches chess on a volunteer basis. He said that financially, he may not be able to teach the chess clubs next year.

For more information on the tournaments and chess clubs, call Congdon Park School at 336-8825 or Milan Chorkovich at 727-2649.

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