Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Making a Difference: My Chess Buddy Ellen Wanek

I've written about Ellen Wanek before.  I met her at a Hales Corners Chess Challenge a few Challenges ago, and we hit it off immediately.  She's beautiful, and gracious, and so kind, and just has this effervescent personality that draws people to her.  You know how some people just have an aura about them?  Ellen has that kind of aura.  I am so happy to have met her. 

Ellen teaches kids how to play chess at Sheboygan area schools and has been a driving force behind getting a "Chess in the Park" program going in Sheboygan, too.  So glad to see Ellen - and her work - getting publicity!  And I'm so happy to read about more Wisconsin women getting actively involved in bringing chess to children - and to everyone. 

From The Sheboygan Press

Check mates: Students make their moves in chess tournaments
February 25, 2013
By Kali Thiel

Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series of articles about Sheboygan-area residents who are going the extra mile to make Sheboygan and beyond a better place.

If you see a car around town with a “Chess Nut” vanity plate, it’s likely Ellen Wanek’s.

Wanek, 61, devotes much of her retired life to the game of chess. She’s a coach at four Sheboygan schools, she privately teaches about 10 students every week and she helps out at many of the area’s weekend chess tournaments.

“The woman is addicted to chess,” said Al Wanek, Ellen’s husband.

Wanek isn’t alone. There’s a growing interest in chess that’s sweeping across Sheboygan County schools. And on Saturday, nearly 200 area youth competed in the annual Acuity Chess Invitational put on by Acuity and the Wisconsin Scholastic Chess Federation.

Shawn Chrisman, director of the Acuity tournament, said more than 15 Sheboygan County schools were represented at the weekend tournament and he estimated around 400 youth in Sheboygan County are active in chess in some fashion.

The Acuity Invitational is one of about 10 tournaments offered in Sheboygan County from November to March each year. A few years ago, there weren’t even half that many though, said Katie Delahunt, WSCF board member.

When Delahunt moved to the Sheboygan area about eight years ago from Milwaukee, she said she was amazed that Sheboygan didn’t have many chess tournaments. Her children had been active in chess at their previous school and she missed having that opportunity for them.

“In Milwaukee, chess was a huge thing,” Delahunt said. “You played chess during the lunch hour or after school. Some schools were very elaborate and they even hired experts to coach. They’d bring in experts from Russia that are top players worldwide.”

Delahunt, the Sheboygan/Kohler Municipal Court judge, said she was instrumental in getting tournaments started in Sheboygan about six years ago and ever since then, chess has really taken off.

“The thing with tournaments is it motivates (the students),” Delahunt said. “The kids who are in a club then have a purpose.”

Wanek said she became involved with chess tournaments after volunteering for one at what was then Holy Name School about four years ago, and she’s been hooked ever since.

“When I saw this type of chess tournament with so many children, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was just loving every minute of it,” Wanek said. “I have just really been giving my life to this the last few years through scholastic chess because I can see it just benefitting so many different areas of people’s lives.”

Among the numerous benefits chess offers, Wanek said it can boost IQ, promote creative thinking, improve teens’ decision-making skills and it can even help prevent dementia.

Delahunt said she likes that chess provides a different way for students to get involved at school.

“For kids who aren’t maybe basketball players or who don’t have another activity to do during the winter, it’s something great for them to do,” she said. “And they really enjoy it and it gets them focused and they learn how to win and lose. There are just so many benefits.”

The tournament at Acuity is unique in that it is the only area tournament that is free. Most tournaments charge $10 or so per competitor.

“It brings more kids out who have never played in a tournament before,” said Chrisman. “A lot of parents think, OK if this is a free tournament then I’ll try it out and as long as I know my kid likes it, I’ll spend that time.”

New to the Acuity Invitational this year was Random Lake seventh-grader Alexander Jentsch. Even though Jentsch said he’s been playing chess since about second grade, this was the first year he participated in tournaments.

Jentsch said he likes playing chess because it “keeps your brain working.”

His mom, Sheila Jentsch, said that even though she can’t play chess very well, she likes it because her son likes it, which is why she got permission from the Random Lake schools administration to start a chess club next year.

“Right now (my son) is the only one going to tournaments,” she said. “But I know there are other kids who play chess so I’m trying to get a group going.”

It was just last year that Lake Country Academy, Horace Mann Middle School, Lincoln Erdman Elementary, the Mosaic School and Grant Elementary/ESAA got clubs started. They already had a combined total of nearly 100 kids in the Acuity tournament this year.

Three of those schools — Horace Mann, Lincoln-Erdman and Lake Country — are Wanek’s proteges. She also coaches at Sheboygan Christian School.

“Having this in place as an educational tool is phenomenal, but the personal life values and training that this gives goes beyond even that,” Wanek said.

“It has been just an absolute wonderful time for my life. Here I am, I’m older, and instead of becoming a couch potato, this has just been a whole new horizon to really give your life to and I think it’s a worthwhile mission because these children are really being blessed by it,” she said.

Other blog posts about Ellen Wanek:

May 1, 2011:  Chess Queen, Ellen Wanek, Chess Coach
October 22, 2011:  Hales Corners Chess Challenge XIV (some photos)
April 22, 2012:  Hales Corners Chess Challenge XV (some photos - I was off my water pill and look horrid and bloated in all of the photos taken during this time; less than 2 months laters my heart problems revealed themselves, but in this event I won my first and only tournament game!)
June 28, 2012:  Sheboygan's Chess in the Park
July 14, 2012:  Of Kings, Queens and Castles -- Chess in the Park helps children improve game during the summer

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