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Summer Chess Academy returns to Flagstaff

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Northern Arizona Chess Center’s (NACC) Summer Chess Academy has returned in person after a few years off due to the pandemic. Students from schools across Flagstaff are attending the three-week camp to strengthen their strategies and make new friends.

NACC resumed holding in-person chess tournaments this December, after a pandemic pause. Among this year's Flagstaff chess accomplishments are the Northern Arizona Chess Championships last month and the Killip Elementary team's April trip to Dallas, Texas to compete in the Middle School Chess Championships (for K-8 students).

A handful of students gathered around a chess strategy board hanging at the front of a Flagstaff Junior Academy classroom on a recent morning for a lesson on opening moves.

They talked through a series of potential strategies as a class, then coach Cortney Reagle reminded them of three principle before they split into pairs to practice on their own boards.

"Pawn center, castle early and knights and bishops out," he told them.

Elementary students Rylee Branson and Violet were working together to figure out the daily puzzle from, which they had set up on their chess board using the template at the front of the classroom.

Violet said the academy was a way to get to play with other people, since “my father can’t play with me at work.”

Rylee added that her favorite part of camp is “that we can play any people that we want...and that we can learn.”

Schools represented by the campers include Sinagua Middle School, the Montessori Charter School of Flagstaff, Killip and Puente de Hozho Elementaries as well as Coconino High School. 

Coach Bill Cheney described the academy as “more focused on advanced chess and advanced moves" than the chess camp NACC held before the pandemic. That said, the camp isn't limited to students on a chess team.

“We want to get the top players together, but it's for everybody,” he said. “We teach that when you lose a game you still win, because you learned a lesson.”

The advantage of Chess Academy, Reagle said, is that students are able to spend more time focusing on their skills than the hour a week they get through school clubs. 

“Now we have five hours every day for three weeks,” he said. “They can just absorb so much.”

Reagle started playing chess as a senior in high school and began working for NACC as a student at Northern Arizona University. After playing in a few tournaments, he began coaching for Killip in 2018.

“It just stuck,” he said of his involvement in chess. “I couldn’t get enough of it.”

The academy includes students with a variety of skills and grade levels. Lessons, practice time and other activities are designed to challenge students along this range, Reagle said. Two high school students played against the rest of the campers in a round of simultaneous chess the first week, for example.

“It was really fun because the kids got to experience playing someone harder, but then [the high schoolers] got to experience playing eight games at the same time, which is really hard,” he said. “...There’s just so many things you can do with chess. It’s a game where you’re always learning, no matter how good you are.”

Seventh grader Myla Chee said she had been playing chess since second grade. She said what she enjoyed about the game was “having to use your brain to vision or plan or predict what’s going to happen.”

“I’ve learned that you can use your time wisely if you have a clock,” she said. “Also, being able to plan out or calculate all your plays that you want to play out.”

Clocks are one new element the academy had added to its chess games. In timed games, each player begins with a set amount on their timer. This runs down only while that player is making a move and running out of time is a way to lose the game.

“You usually don’t have a lot of time in the tournaments,” Reagle said. “We’re trying to get them to play with less time, so they learn to play faster. They have to think as much as they can, as quickly as they can, which is really useful.”

“I just got interested,” soon-to-be sixth grader Genesis Hobson-Pereyra said of her reasons for attending the chess academy. She said she found “how all the pieces move and what they can do,” most interesting about chess and that the upcoming tournaments were her favorite part of camp.

Both Hobson-Pereyra and rising fifth grader Krillin Branson said they had started competing in kindergarten or first grade.

“I came to chess academy because I love chess,” Branson said. “Also what I found interesting in chess is how the pieces move and the kids and making new friends and going to the tournament.”

Cheney referred to the game as a "universal language." 

“I find chess is for everyone of all abilities and people who have all backgrounds and demographics can excel," he said. "….I ask kids three things: do you like to have fun, do you like to travel and do you like to make new friends? If your answer is yes, then you’re a good candidate for chess.”

To register or learn more about the Summer Chess Academy, visit or email


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