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Things looked bleak for Josiah Stearman of Martinez as he competed in the Grade-Level State Chess Championship at the University of the Pacific in Stockton on Dec. 4 and 5. After only three moves, he was already two pawns down.

But Josiah’s opponent didn’t realize that he was using a cleverly disguised version of the Danish Gambit. He was trading pieces for position.

On move number five Josiah pounced, taking a pawn. Then he took a bishop, and on the move after that he put his opponent’s king in check.

Ten moves later it was all over. Josiah had won in a rout.

Now get this: Josiah is only 7 years old. He went on to defeat four more opponents, winning the Second Grade State Championship.

Josiah was competing for the Berkeley Chess School, and he wasn’t the only BCS student to walk away with first prize. Ben Rood of Walnut Creek won at the 1st grade level, Joel Alcaraz of Vallejo won the sixth grade, Tudor Muntean of Danville won the eighth grade, Gabriel Lee of San Ramon won the 10th grade, and Rusian Bulguchov of Alamo won the 12th grade.

Beside the first-place winners, many BCS students placed in the statewide top 10 for their grade.

The Berkeley Chess School serves students at 150 schools throughout the Bay Area. Of the 41 schools whose teams were made up of BCS students, eight teams placed in the top 10 at the state championship.

Ho hum. Just another day for the Berkeley Chess School, which has routinely

dominated the state competition every year since it was founded 29 years ago.

So what’s their secret?

“They make it fun,” says Josiah’s mother, Sarah Stearman. “So many kids are weighted down with so much pressure, but not at the Berkeley Chess School.”

David Kornguth of Orinda, whose daughter, Lindsay, competes at the fourth-grade level, agrees.

“Chess can be incredibly intense, and some parents are very overbearing with their kids. The one thing that’s completely different with the Berkeley Chess School is that they make it rewarding, not punitive, so the kids maintain their interest for years and years.”

Chess traditionally has been a male-dominated game. Even at the Berkeley Chess School, the boy/girl ratio is 80/20. But girls like Lindsay are changing that.

“Boys are confident that they can beat girls, and she uses that to her advantage to psych herself up,” says her dad. “She loves to beat boys who are highly rated.” Lindsay, whose sweet demeanor masks a killer instinct, hones her skills by purposely playing more experienced opponents.

“I hate games that are too easy,” she explains. “It’s no fun to do the same thing over and over again.”

The Berkeley Chess School was founded in 1982 by Elizabeth Shaughnessy, a former Irish Women’s Chess Champion and former Berkeley school board president, who started by volunteering to teach chess to children in her son Stephen’s elementary school.

“There was a great deal of interest, as you can imagine in a university town like Berkeley,” she says. “Seventy-two children showed up for the first class.”

Today, the Berkeley Chess School teaches more than 5,000 students in after-school sessions at their own schools, including three Title One schools in Oakland and Richmond.

It also offers daytime classes for home schoolers and Friday evening classes at the former Hillside School in Berkeley and the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek.

A 2006 study at J.O. Ford, a Title One school in Richmond, showed that students whose classes included chess instruction did 20 percent better than their peers in math and 15 percent better in English.

The school also offers camp sessions every summer, both full-day and half-day, Monday through Friday in Berkeley, Walnut Creek, Fremont and San Carlos.

Classes are held at four levels: Novice, Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced, and Advanced. The program includes daily instruction and play, first time membership in the US Chess Federation, prizes and a T-shirt that reads, “Just Say Chess.”

The teachers come from all walks of life. Over the years they have included Cal professors, a UPS driver, a church custodian and a bagel maker.

The school has a lengthy etiquette list of dos and don’ts, including no trash talking, no intimidating, and players must shake hands before each game.

“We tell them that Berkeley Chess School students first and foremost are good sports, and chess is between friends for fun,” says Shaughnessy’s son, Stephen, one of the school’s most popular teachers. “Our primary purpose is to instill the joy of chess.”

And you’re never too young to learn. Ben Rood, who won the first-grade trophy at the state championship, has been called one of the top 6-year-olds in the world by no less than International Grandmaster Sam Collins.

And waiting in the wings is Josiah’s little brother, Micah.

“He’s only 4,” says Josiah. “But he can already play entire games in his head, without looking at the board!”

The Berkeley Chess School is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization, and some of its students are on partial or full scholarships. For more information about its programs or to donate to the school, call 510-843-0150 or visit

Contact Martin Snapp at