St. John chess team earns national wins: First-year club plans to add girls team

Published 9:00 am Monday, May 20, 2019

RESERVE — National chess master Renee Phillips tells his St. John STEM students each calculated move represents exercise for the mind.

Over the course of the school year, lunchtime practice sessions developed into a chess team of intelligent and motivated individuals who have taken state and national competitions by storm.

The St. John STEM Chess Team took home three national titles at the recent U.S. Chess Federation’s 2019 National Junior High Championship in Texas.

Matthew Billings, of East St. John High School, and George Smith, of the St. John the Baptist Parish STEM Magnet Program, combined scores to secure the national title in the Team Member and Friend Division.

According to Phillips, Billings operated in the role of an assistant coach in a division open to students through ninth grade. Billings also won the Novice Tournament, while St. John the Baptist Parish STEM Magnet Program teacher and Chess Team Coach Rene Phillips won the Coach Tournament title.

STEM students Avery Williams and Cyrel Rodrigazo also competed on the national level, Phillips said.

Smith, who also plays football and baseball for East St. John, described the St. John chess team as a highly competitive group of talented students.

“We were able to play against some of the best players in the nation. With over 1,500 kids, we were able to bring home two trophies,” Smith said. “My team and I would like to work hard and get even better at chess and be able to bring home much bigger and better trophies for our school and for our district.”

In its first year in existence, the St. John chess team has outperformed many veteran programs, with Billings taking first place with a perfect score and Smith tying for second in the casual player division at the Louisiana State High School Chess Competition in March. The team returned to St. John Parish with the first place team trophy.

Phillips is proud of the St. John chess team’s successes thus far, and he predicts the group will continue to grow.

“We have a girls team that will be fielding in the Louisiana state championship,” Phillips said. “If they do as well as we did this year, we will also be fielding a girls national team. We already have a large contingent of girls that are interested.”

— Jennifer Boquet, communications specialist for St. John Parish Public Schools, contributed to this report.