LIFE IN EASTERN IOWA

Top of her game: 15-year-old likes challenge, strategic thinking of chess

Her dad got her started, now she can beat him (sometimes)

Members of the Pawnstormers chess club practice at Prairie Point Middle School in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020
Members of the Pawnstormers chess club practice at Prairie Point Middle School in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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A longtime chess player, Dustin Sellon sat his three children down seven years ago to teach them the game he loved.

“I was the only one who stuck around,” said his daughter Audrey, now 15, of Ely.

Audrey continued to learn about the game and started playing on her elementary and middle school teams in the College Community School District in Cedar Rapids. Now a ninth-grader at Prairie Point, she was selected for the Iowa Pawn Stormers, a club team that plays tournaments in Iowa and the Midwest.

To be chosen for Pawn Stormers, a player must be a Corridor students in third to 11th grade and typically have a chess rating around 1,000.

“For chess ratings, you start out at 100,” Audrey said. “As you play tournaments, if you do well by beating people higher than you, then you gain ratings. If you lose to people lower than you, then you lose ratings.”

Audrey is currently at 1,290.

“That’s pretty good,” she said.

To put it in perspective, one of her role models, Norwegian chess player Magnus Carlsen – who has been world champion since 2013 – holds the highest rating in history, at 2,882.

“I really like how it’s thinking-based and it’s very strategic, so I feel like there’s always a lot to learn with it because you can always get better,” Audrey said. “It’s a lot of planning and problem-solving, and it sounds nerdy, but I kind of like that stuff.”

Jim Hodina, Audrey’s Pawn Stormers coach, said Audrey “is a joy to coach. She does not hesitate to give you feedback when she doesn’t understand a chess concept or when she isn’t being fully challenged by the course of study.”

Audrey also participates in Prairie Point’s choir and jazz band, musicals, soccer and cross-country.

“Sometimes, being busy is really difficult, but other times, I know I couldn’t get through without doing all my stuff,” Audrey said. “I learned really quick not to procrastinate on my homework.”

Audrey also credits chess with helping her develop the critical thinking skills needed to excel at school.

“It’s like when you’re under pressure for a test, it helps you with quick thinking but good thinking. It helps with problem-solving and just thinking outside the box, too,” Audrey said. “I think it helped to start so early because I feel like it helped me to be the student I am in school today.”

Between her two chess teams, Audrey sometimes has up to three practices a week. Players spend half the time playing through games to show moves and talking about positions and possible outcomes.

The other half, coaches set up positions and the players try to win or draw from that point on, or discuss the pros and cons of various openings — the first 10 to 15 moves of a game. Audrey also reads books on chess and studies games that have been played.

“They are called ‘lines’ you can study that are basically pre-determined, people have already played it, so you go through certain moves that people can copy,” Audrey said. “Experience with it helps you recognize patterns and things that you can look for in a game.

“Also, a part of chess is constantly looking anywhere from one to five, or maybe even six moves ahead. That’s the most I can do right now. You’re always looking ahead.”

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Each chess match is timed. Matches run 30 to 90 minutes, depending on the tournament. As players finish a move, they tap the clock, and their opponent’s time starts counting down.

“Sometimes you get put under a lot of time pressure, like you’re trying to figure out a position but you only have 30 seconds left,” Audrey said.

Audrey’s twin brother, Aidan, and older sister, Kaitlyn, don’t play with her much anymore “because they know that I’ll beat them. Neither of them are interested in getting into it,” Audrey said.

Her mother, Sarah, doesn’t play. Which leaves her father, Dustin, for matches at home. She’s become stiff competition for her dad.

“It’s a little bit of a struggle, but I can beat him,” Audrey said. “He’s a little rusty, though.”

TO LEARN OR PLAY CHESS

• Visit chessiniowa.org

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