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NORMAL — New blood is what keeps one of Bloomington's oldest chess traditions going strong.

Each year, a new class enters the MLK Scholastic Tournament, the 28th annual event that drew about 400 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade Monday to Illinois State University's Bone Student Center.

Students represented schools from Thomas Metcalf School, a scant block away, to Elmwood Elementary School is Naperville. No matter how far they traveled, however, the competition's rookies found it a whole new world.

Here are a few snippets from their day:

8:30 a.m.: Elle Alsman, a kindergartner at Metcalf, arrives with her sister, second-grader Emalee, and their mother, Anastasia, for their first tournament. Their mother says the girls caught the chess bug in an after-school program. “My husband, (Brent), and myself don’t sit around playing chess all the time, so they come up with some things where we say, ‘We’re not sure if that’s right or not,’" Anastasia Alsman says with a laugh.

8:48 a.m.: The girls and a friend, second-grader Raine Fung, play chess in the Metcalf team's room on an iPad and Kindle Fire tablet as registration winds down. Emalee plays both sides of a game. When Coach Rob McDade asks her if she normally wins or loses against herself, Emalee replies, "Both." "At least she's honest," her mother says.

9:03 a.m.: Emalee buys a notation book. Students are encouraged but not required to record their own moves; Elle won't this year. "It's a good way for them to learn to plan ahead strategies, follow them and adapt," Anastasia Alsman says of chess. "That's useful in all walks of life."

9:26 a.m.: McDade gives the Metcalf primary and elementary students their pairings for the first of five rounds. He reviews the rules, which the girls know. "We are the biggest team here," he says. "Let's be the best one."

9:37 a.m.: After a speech from tournament founder Garrett Scott about The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., students settle in for round one. Because Elle didn't draw a partner, her mother waits after parents are dismissed from the play area to make sure she gets a place among substitute players. Finally, Anastasia Alsman lets go of her hand, gives a thumbs up and prepares to wait for the match to end. "It's nerve-wracking," she says.

Noon: Elle is back already from round two — her first loss after a round-one draw — but Emalee's match lingers as her sister and mother start lunch with Raine. "I make them play at least one match between rounds to keep them in that mindset," Anastasia Alsman says. "They also like to play something else, like Minecraft." When asked how she feels so far, Elle gives a thumbs up.

12:38 p.m.: Emalee returns from round two — also a loss following a draw. "It was fun," she says. "I was thinking about winning a trophy." She's distraught to find out that during the round thieves in Raine's game of Minecraft burned Emalee's house down.

12:47 p.m.: The girls get their pairings for round three. Their mother offers to walk Elle to the ballroom again, but she takes off running. All their mother can do is laugh.

4:04 p.m.: Elle wraps up the day 0-3-2.

4:17 p.m.: Emalee returns from her final match. She finishes 2-2-1.

4:20 p.m.: Elle says she learned a new rule at the tournament: as of Jan. 1, competitors must touch the queen or king before the rook when castling. She plans to use that lesson at the state tournament at ISU in March.

4:22 p.m.: McCade awaits the day's results but is already satisfied. "Everybody had a great time, especially the people in their first tournament," he says. "We did well." 

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Public Safety Reporter

Public safety reporter for The Pantagraph.

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