Fewer Alaskans play organized chess than residents of any other U.S. state, but students at one Anchorage school are hoping to advance Alaska's game.

The Pingnatuk Chess Club, at the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, shows no lack of interest in the age-old contest of checkmates.

"Our program started two years ago with four kids and then this year we're up to 38," Drea Whiteside-Ferrell, the club's coach, said. "Once they start playing, they won't stop."

Whiteside-Ferrell runs the club all year, playing five days a week even on school half-days. Students have held fundraisers in order to buy boards, pieces and clocks. They recently hosted a five-round tournament which brought out 48 kids to compete, some from other charter schools.

"It was less than I was expecting, but I have big dreams," Whiteside-Ferrell said.

Alaska's small group of players who have become United States Chess Federation members and received nationally recognized ratings, however, tell a different tale. Vermont and Wyoming, states with lower populations than Alaska, have more active USCF members: 108 and 80, respectively.

Alaska has 17.

That number reflects a decline in USCF-sanctioned Alaska tournaments over the past few decades. Twenty-six tournaments were recorded in the 1990s and 21 took place in the 2000s, but just five have been held so far this decade.

The USCF is the country's governing body for the game. Players become Federation members so they can play in sanctioned events and establish a nationally recognized rating.

The state's last such tournament was in 2017 thanks to Jonathon Singler, an Alaska Pacific University graduate student originally from Texas and Spain who is the only USCF-certified coach living in Alaska. The Last Frontier hasn't hosted a single USCF-sanctioned tournament this year, with none currently planned. 

In Alaska, high schools don't compete with each other in chess. The Mat-Su Borough School District hosts annual team-based tournaments in its elementary and middle schools, but high-school students compete in their tournaments as individuals rather than teams. To compete as a team, more schools need to get involved in the chess community.

The Mat-Su district's yearly tournaments are a microcosm of what's happening across Alaska. After eighth grade, the number of students getting playing chess drops substantially and is virtually nonexistent in most schools.

Still, you can find pockets of chess excitement in lower grades throughout the state.

"I want to see more chess clubs," Pingnatuk member Siriana Ferrell said. "I want it to be known to the world that Alaska wants to play chess."

Singler, who served as director for the Pingnatuk tournament, is actively working to trying to get more kids involved in and sticking with chess.

"Instilling competitive chess between different schools, that competitiveness drives the community," he said. "It also drives the passion."

Part of Singler's graduate studies involves community programming based on community needs.

"My goal for chess with youth is to provide them a sport that is not just entertaining but socially engaging and at the same time help them build their skills beyond just social aspects," he said.

Singler worked to establish a club at APU. The club has competed in the last two Pan-American College Chess Championships. He wants APU to be Anchorage's "chess central."

"Alaska Pacific University is providing Anchorage a social and competitive hub for chess with outreach opportunities such as elementary and secondary schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, correctional facilities and more," Singler said. "As long as there is a program for them to continue in they're all going to be successful."

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