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DeSoto Central High School senior Silas Nelson (left) makes his next chess move as juniors Matthew Carroll (seated) and Charles Minott (standing) look on in the school library Monday. All three will be taking part in the DeSoto County chess tournament.

More than 11 years ago, former DeSoto Central High School Principal Charlie Tipton turned to a trusted teacher named Karen Clark and said pointedly, "you're in charge of the chess team."

The only problem was that Karen Clark, a family dynamics teacher at DeSoto Central High School, had never played a game of chess in her life.

"I had to learn how to play chess," Clark said, as she recalled that fateful day when a game turned into a passion. "The kids taught me how to play and now I've taught other kids how to play."

Today, Clark, the longtime sponsor of the DeSoto Central Chess Team, will lead just under a dozen players into the DeSoto County Chess Tournament at the Southaven Arena.

Some of Clark's team members are novices when it comes to chess, while others are budding experts. The game itself sharpens analytical and critical thinking skills.

"I've seen some kids who have come in here who have never touched a chessboard before in their lives," Clark said. "I've watched chess make a major difference in their lives. They've made friendships, they continue to improve and do better. It's just a great thing to watch as they grow and develop. Usually the kids who do well go on to play in the state tournament, which is usually held in Clinton or Madison."

Family members and the public will begin arriving about 8 a.m. but chess tournament play doesn't begin until around 9 a.m. More than 500 students from across the DeSoto County School District will be taking part.

The annual chess tournament will feature about 280 middle and high school students today. On Wednesday, tournament action will feature more than 240 fourth and fifth graders in chess competition.

The tournament is the largest annual tournament in Mississippi, according to Emily Nelson, Executive Director of Leadership Development for DeSoto County Schools.

Her son Silas will be competing as a senior and a previous winner.

"I like how it involves a lot of forethought," said Silas. "You have to think pretty far ahead. It reflects life as well, because you always have to think a couple of moves ahead, to get ahead. My parents were really involved into it. My mom has always been a big promoter of things like this, things that involved a lot of critical thinking. Chess is fun and it's very educational. I'll definitely try to teach it to my kids when I have some."

Matthew Carroll, a DeSoto Central High School junior, said a fun pastime has evolved into a serious pursuit.

"I was just playing with some friends, and they kind of taught me how to play," Carroll said. "I'm still somewhat of a beginner but I'm wanting to better myself. I like the strategy part of it. The whole game is about strategy. It feels like you're playing a war against somebody else."

Charles Minott, also a DCHS junior, said chess teaches a student to deal with complex issues.

"There's so many different outcomes," Minott said. "You can look at a game from so many different angles. It's just really interesting because it gets you to view how the other person thinks while you're playing."

Staff Writer Bob Bakken contributed to this story.

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