Sunday, November 11, 2007

Some Thoughts This Veterans' Day

My dad died on November 3, 2002. His memorial at the Veterans' Cemetery in Union Grove, Wisconsin, was a feature story for Veterans' Day that year in the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel. Here is a photo from the article. My mother, one of my sisters (arm around mom) and one of my brothers are sitting in the front row. I'm third from the left in the second row (wiping my eyes).

As I've gotten older I've gotten more sentimental, darlings; and since the death of my dad this day of remembrance is particularly poignant for me because now it is forever associated with my dad's death. Looking at that photograph brings back all the emotions of that time, and I'm sitting here with tears in my eyes.

But that's not a bad thing. It's good to remember, to reflect on those who have served us, those we love, those we lost, those who are in the armed forces now, some of whom are coming home, and the joy that will bring to their loved ones. There's a story in today's Journal/Sentinel about the mother of a promising young chessplayer who is coming home, she may arrive today, from Germany, where she has served as a nurse to our service people wounded in the Middle East:

Chess whiz making right moves
Posted: Nov. 10, 2007
by Laurel Walker

For someone with nerves of steel, a fire in his belly and the ability to perceive what is not yet there, 11-year-old Brian Dennis seems remarkably like any other fun-loving kid.

As a matter of fact, it is those characteristics that make him such a whiz at chess. But it is the enjoyment of the game that keeps him playing.

"It's fun, and it's not (about) luck like most other board games," said Brian, a sixth-grader who had just wrapped up another practice with his teammates from Hamilton High School. He works at it.

Chess coach Tim Moeller, who invited Brian to join the team after he watched him play and win school tournaments at Lannon Elementary School for several years, paid him a high compliment.
"No one's going to want to play this kid by the time he's a senior in high school," he said. Brian's that good already, and more importantly, getting better all the time.

"No one's going to want to play this kid by the time he's a senior in high school," he said. Brian's that good already, and more importantly, getting better all the time.

Since there are no age limits for high school team members in the Scenic Moraine Chess Association, made up of eight public and two private high schools in the region, the Hamilton team includes three Templeton Middle School students - a sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grader - among its 16 members. Brian is the youngest.

"If you can reach the board, you can play," said Moeller, a chemistry and physics teacher and engineer.

Brian doesn't just reach the board. He stands tall.

Chess has filled some of the gap left over the past year while his mother, Capt. Pamela Dennis, a Naval Reserve nurse, was called to active duty overseas, said his dad, also named Brian Dennis.

She spent her tour in Landstuhl, Germany, where soldiers injured in the Middle East war zone were sent and assessed for either a return to duty or treatment back in the United States.

News that she had to leave in October 2006 made him sad and scared, her son said. But on this Veterans Day, Brian and his younger sister, Brianna, 9, have their mom back.

She finished her stint and returned to the U.S. last week. She was expected home last night.

In the meantime he's had to step up around their Sussex house, watching his younger sister and helping with household chores.

At the same time, he's driven himself to excel in chess and has kept his mom up to date through her daily phone calls and conversations by Web camera.

She was able to surprise him with a visit last May in Nashville, Tenn., when he made his first appearance in the U.S. Chess Federation's national tournament.

He still kept his focus enough to come away with a third place finish. He won six of seven games and tied one, so a computer that gave weight to wins based on the toughness of opponents settled the tiebreakers and gave Brian a third-place finish among 394 elementary school players.

Brian also competes in the Wisconsin Scholastic Chess Federation, which coordinates chess tournaments at schools in the state. He was last year's fifth-grade champion at the state tournament.

This season, just under way, he's taken second place at several tournaments. (Lannon Elementary School is sponsoring a chess tournament at Hamilton High School Dec. 15 for kindergarten through 12th-grade players, beginners to expert. Check out for information.)

"Brian has a passion for playing chess, but a greater enthusiasm for understanding the game," said the senior Brian Dennis. "It's neat to watch him and his chess friends dissecting games after they are played at tournaments. There is a genuine willingness to help each other become better players as they comment on opportunities missed or impressive moves that were made."

That's exactly what makes Brian stand out from a lot of young chess players, said Alex Schwartz, 17, a Hamilton senior and the best rated player on the high school team.

He and teammate, Ben Helm, also 17, have each played chess for 12 years and they are among teammates who mentor young players at Lannon Elementary School. They've watched Brian play - and given him pointers - for a few years now.

"Give him two years," Schwartz said. "He'll kill me. He has a passion for it. The kid studies it like Mr. Moeller (the coach) studies physics."

Helm likens Brian's enthusiasm to a person who loves to read and devours books. "He absorbs the books like a sponge" and then applies what he learns to the next game.

Like many players who excel, Brian keeps written track of every play he and his opponent make so he can study the moves after the game and figure out what he did right and what he could have done better.

In the high school competition, only the top 10 players compete - the rest play exhibitions - and Brian is on the cusp of moving his ranking into the upper tier. High school conference competitions are still a month off.

Chess is becoming increasingly popular, which in an age when kids can get pre-occupied with video games and television is encouraging, indeed. Registered players with the U.S. Chess Federation have more than quadrupled, to about 45,000, since 1990, and organized chess programs are springing up at more elementary and middle schools.

Coach Moeller said that while Brian Dennis is outstanding for his age, it is increasingly common to see young players excel.

The highest-ranked high school team player in New Berlin, for example, is an eighth grader, he said, and some kids Brian's age beyond Wisconsin are working to become chess masters.

Brian said he started playing chess in third grade when, bored during recess, a friend taught him the game. Third-grade teacher Laureanna Raymond-Duvernell runs a chess club at Lannon Elementary School and he signed up. He taught his dad to play so he'd have a ready made opponent, but Brian Dennis, the dad, said his son is already in a different league.

"It's a great strategy game," said Raymond-Duvernell. "It forces you to plan ahead, to make decisions and to live with those decisions."

In other words, the kinds of skills that can be particularly useful in life.

Chess has helped him focus more on his school work, too, Brian said, and he's much better in math than he used to be.
He remembers when he first learned to play and would concentrate so hard on the chess pieces and the potential moves that his head would hurt. "The brain gets used to it after awhile," he said.

And better for it, I'm certain.

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