PORTLAND – Mick Fennessy’s collar was still wet from the last match.
The fourth-grader from East End Community School had easily eliminated his first two opponents using a strategy, called “fried liver attack,” that he learned on YouTube.
But it hadn’t worked the third time, and when he started losing pieces, he chewed his T-shirt until he had a checkmate.
“My heart was racing,” he said before taking on his final opponent.
The chess tournament Wednesday at the East End school was the first competition for its two-year-old team. The opposing teams, from Falmouth Elementary School and Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Portland, started their chess programs around the same time.
At East End, the team grew popular quickly, said coach Ben Monaghan.
“It’ll be a beautiful day out and they all show up,” he said of the team’s after-school practices.
Students who aren’t on the team but want to learn to play chess can go to classes before school.
Principal Marcia Gendron said chess is among several enrichment programs, including technology exploration and theater, that help students learn to think and motivate them in the classroom.
“They have lots and lots of opportunities to practice and be successful beyond academic learning, which is more reflective of what 21st-century learning will be for our students,” she said.
More than, say, a standardized test?
“It’s another way to measure student growth and success,” Gendron said of the chess tournament.
She wouldn’t comment on the fact that East End – a school that got an F last month from the Maine Department of Education – was competing against Falmouth Elementary, a school that got an A in the grading system introduced by Gov. Paul LePage, which is based largely on test scores.
Ocean Avenue Elementary received a C.
On Wednesday, about 60 students from the three schools, in second through fifth grades, sat on both sides of fold-out tables lined up in the school’s cafeteria while parents watched from the periphery.
The students were arranged by skill level, with the better players sitting near the stage, where another table held a gold cup surrounded by medals for each student from the winning school.
They played four 25-minute rounds, swapping seats and tallying their wins in between.
Going into the final round, East End was leading, followed by Falmouth, then Ocean Avenue. Mick Fennessy was undefeated.
Sitting across from his Ocean Avenue opponent, Mick stared at the chessboard with his pinky in his mouth. He wiggled his legs, which were crossed at the ankles.
His mother knew that he had to go to the bathroom — and that he’d never get up from the game.
“He’s competitive like crazy,” Nola Fennessy said.
Before Mick could claim victory, time ran out.
He clenched his fists and held them to his head when it was called.
“I see checkmate,” said the frustrated 10-year-old.
But his team didn’t need the win.
When the final scores were written on the posterboard, the East End chess players threw up their hands and cheered.
Mick held the trophy above his head as his teammates surrounded him onstage, where they posed for pictures.
“East End rocks!” they screamed.
Coach Monaghan couldn’t help himself.
“And LePage called it a failing school,” he said.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: