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Run, play chess, do better at both

March 26, 2011

Christian Fuller prepares a move. Times Photo/Wendilyn Grasseschi

When Mammoth resident Christian Fuller sits down Monday night at Snowcreek Athletic Club to play 12 simultaneous games of chess with players ranging in age from seven to 77, don’t expect him to lose.

In that room will be everyone from a fifth grade Mammoth Elementary student to someone in their 70s, most students that Fuller has been teaching over the past year since he moved to Mammoth to train as a long distance runner.

Fuller, best known as a winning long distance runner, has also been playing chess competitively as long as he’s been running – and winning at both.

That’s no coincidence, he says.

“Chess and running both complement each other,” he said.

“Running, being athletic and active, trains the body, which helps the brain functions better. Chess trains the mind, which in turn, helps to develop strategies and tactics for running. It’s a big, full circle.”

Fuller’s students include Mammoth Elementary students, middle and high school students and plenty of adults as well. He’s been teaching those students since last year, doing both Running Club and Chess Club sessions for his students. Often, though not always, the students in one class simply move on over to the other class, although he has plenty of runners who don’t play chess and vice versa.

Fuller has been driven to teach almost as long as he’s been running and playing chess. When he was eight years old, he signed up to run a 2,5 mile race, then was surprised to find himself running a second loop with relative ease.

At about the same time, he started playing chess, after learning it from his dad.

His love affair with running was immediate. His love affair with chess took a while.

“My dad taught me and my brothers, but I actually preferred checkers, because my brother could beat me at chess,” he laughed.

Nevertheless, eventually he started winning and played competitively throughout his youth.
Fuller discovered his love of teaching chess when he began to realize the benefits of the game on not just his running, but on his life in general.

By ninth grade, he was a certified chess coach, and coached his former elementary school students to championships wins.

“There’s something about chess that helps people to recognize patterns, to develop both short term tactics and long term strategies, something that doesn’t stop when you leave the chess board,” he said.

“Equally important, the game requires deep concentration, and this trains the mind to concentrate on a given problem, while at the same time being attentive to the bigger picture.”

Mone County Deputy District Attorney Todd Graham agrees.

“My son Thomas and I play chess regularly,” he said. “Thomas also attends a chess club at Mammoth Elementary school once a week.

"I encourage Thomas to play this wonderful game for three reasons. One, to have fun, two to train him to focus and concentrate, and three, to teach him how to think and plan ahead during competition.

“I believe that the game of chess can impart valuable lessons to our kids.”

Fifth grader Joey Gephart has been playing chess since he was six, and has won all the chess tournaments at Mammoth Elementary since second grade.

“Why do I like chess? Because it makes me think, because it’s challenging, because, it’s fun. It’s just fun,” he said.

Does chess help him in other parts of his life?

“Most of the time if I do use those lessons, I think it’s unconscious,” he said. Then he thought about it a minute.

“No, I really use it when I have to plan ahead,” he said. “It helps me figure out a plan.”

But mostly?

“It’s fun” he said. It’s just fun.”
But, wait.

Isn’t chess hard? Isn’t it only for the elite, brainy few?

Absolutely not, Fuller said.

Fuller said he’s had several local students that teachers and parents would characterize as unfocused, inattentive, even as having attention deficit disorder.

But when the kids learn to play chess, those characteristics take a back seat, as the student learns increased focus.

“It’s a tribute to the game that once most kids start to learn, they don’t want to stop,” he said.

In other words, as Joey Gephart noted, chess is something besides good for your brain and athletic performance.

It’s outright fun.

A new round of chess and running classes with Fuller begin again in April.

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