It’s a little after 7 a.m. on a Thursday morning. At Joseph Charter School, Mrs. Hite’s classroom is abuzz with students of all ages from elementary grades through high school. But they are not getting out their textbooks and notepads. They are setting up chess boards. Some sets are shaped like Star Wars characters. Others are conventional. There are smiles, conversation, and, increasingly, furrowed brows and concentration. The Joseph Charter School Chess Club is in full swing.
The club was started six years ago by JCS physical education and fire management teacher and basketball coach Olan Fulfer. Almost every Thursday morning before school, normally 18 to 25 students gather here to play chess from 7-8 a.m. Sometimes, when JCS band practice doesn’t compete with Chess Club, as many as 35 kids show up.
Fulfer, who majored in history and intended to teach it, has channeled his passion for the past, and for the game of chess, into teaching chess to his young understudies.
“Early versions of chess started in India about 500 B.C.,” he said. “People tend to think it’s a medieval game, because of the knights, and castles, pawns, kings and queens,” In the ancient Indian version, the pieces we call bishops were elephants. In the Mongolian version, they were camels. What we know as the rook was a chariot. But regardless of what the pieces represent, the game of chess has remained almost unchanged for more than 1,500 years.
“Chess is so very beneficial to the kids,” Fulfer said. “It’s like the game of life. You’ve got to consider what your opponent is thinking, and know what you are going to do two or three moves in advance. You have to plan ahead. Every move has to be justified in multiple ways. You have to learn to think strategically.”
Most of the students who participate regularly in Chess Club are in elementary or middle school. Fulfer has some future chess masters among his charges, including fifth grader Malcolm Albee, seventh grader Owen Gorham, and both eighth grader Blade Suto and his sibling, JCS senior, Tori Suto. Brian and James Forrest who recently moved to Enterprise, come to play at the JCS Chess Club as often as they can. Students in Chess Club play one-another, and meetings last for the full hour. Some JCS student enthusiasts also play with adult chess aficionados at the Josephy Center at 4 p.m. on Thursdays.
Students compete in a club chess tournament at the end of the school year. But Fulfer has a loftier vision for the future. He wants to help establish county-wide, school chess clubs that can compete among one another. Then he’ll take the budding grand masters to bigger tournaments, including the Oregon High School Chess Team Association events in Portland and others in Seattle.
“I want to take these students to the state and regional tournaments,” said Fulfer, who participated in chess tournaments as a youngster himself. “Right now, we’re the only school-based chess club in Wallowa County. If these kids stick with it they’ll be really competitive.”