Chess Expert Captures Kids Turns Learning Into Child’s Play

Lou Domanski Age: 79 Vocation: Chess mentor

He stalks the grounds of war like a field marshal. Spread out before him are more than 1,800 soldiers, lined up by rank and awaiting orders.

Within minutes, they will be sent into action. Front lines will crumble. Empires will fall.

And when the clash of armies is over, the vanquished and victorious will file back to their classrooms at Washington Elementary School in Sandpoint, leaving chess expert Lou Domanski to gather their score cards and pack up the 58 chess boards he arranged on cafeteria tables earlier that morning.

“They are playing round No. 7,” Domanski says in an accent still thick with the musical lilt of his native Poland. “Three more and tournament is finished.”

All around him, 116 students have faced off on 58 chess boards. Their position is determined by how well they did in previous matches.

“After first round, losers are playing losers and winners playing winners and so on,” says Domanski, who brought his passion for the game to Bonner County schools in 1987.

Now 79, he learned to play chess at about the same age as these fourth- through sixth-grade students, when he was a boy in Poland. By the time he was a young man, war and this noblest of war games became constants in his life.

“I am three-time POW,” Domanski says as he strolls between lunch tables to watch the tournament.

He was captured first by Soviet troops in 1939 after he’d been driven from his homeland by the Nazi blitzkrieg that signaled the start of World War II. Recaptured after a failed escape attempt, he was sentenced to hard labor in a prison camp north of the Arctic Circle.

When Germany invaded its former ally in 1941, Soviet officials rounded up military prisoners like Domanski and sent them west to join the Allied forces. In 1944, the young Polish soldier was shot down in a Halifax bomber during a mission over Hungary.

When he parachuted to what he thought was safety, the Germans captured him.

Only moments after tournament play has begun in the school cafeteria, a girl thrusts her hand in the air. Domanski walks over, expecting to answer some rudimentary question about rules or fundamentals of movement.

“Is this a checkmate?” she asks.

He studies the game pieces, then slaps his forehead.

He marks a “1” on the winner’s card and a “0” on that of her all-too-brief opponent.

“This girl has a forced mate,” he says. “In three moves!”

It reminds him of the sketch he kept in his POW log book at Stalag Luftwaffe 3 after his plane went down, Domanski says.

Instead of chronicling his incarceration in words, he made drawings of guard towers, barracks and barbed-wire fences. One of his favorites is a sketch that shows Europe overlaid by a chess board.

At the center stands a black king topped with a swastika. Accompanied by nothing more than a single pawn, the stranded king is braced by its white counterpart bearing the lion of Great Britain. Nearby, blocking any chance of escape, a castle crowned with a U.S. star and a Soviet knight seal the black king’s fate.

Underneath the sketch are the words: “Mate in 3rd Move.”

It is at once a political observation in pencil and an artist’s appreciation of chess masterfully played.

In a classic bit of understatement Domanski says: “I was lucky the Germans didn’t see it.”

Half an hour into the school chess tournament, the hands of students are lifting in groups as hopeful competitors ask the same question in different ways.

“Is this a checkmate?”

“Did I get a checkmate?”

“I won, didn’t I?”

Each time, Domanski acknowledges the winner, passes along a few hints to the loser, marks the score cards and moves to the next raised hand.

After World War II, Domanski immigrated to the United States, where he worked as a civil engineer in Southern California. He entered a state chess championship in 1946 and brought home the first in a collection of American tournament trophies.

His 10-year teaching career as a visiting chess master to Bonner County classrooms started when he followed his grandchildren to Southside Elementary School, looking for a way to become involved in their education. He has since taught the game to more than 2,000 students and organized the annual Sandpoint Chess Festival and the North Idaho Scholastic Chess Championships.

“This,” says Domanski, sweeping an arm across the cafeteria of chess boards, “all this is my donation. I spend about $700 a year to donate prizes for kids.”

As games wrap up, principal Mark Berryhill makes sure his students head for the door, not the next game board.

Chess, he says, has a way of removing boundaries despite the inflexible parameters of its 64-square field of play.

“We have two deaf kids over there with their interpreters and they’re playing one another today,” Berryhill says.

They could have just as easily been playing anyone else, according to Domanski.

“Turns out, it happens they had the same score,” he says. “On the score card, I don’t know which one is deaf and which is not when I am matching players.”

At the end of the tournament, Domanski will present the winners from various schools with their own U.S. Chess Federation chess sets. At the end of this school year, he will pass the instructional duties to school officials around the district.

“This is my tenth and last year of teaching chess,” says Domanski, who is moving to Coeur d’Alene with his wife this spring and plans to spend more time at home.

Besides the pride he takes in watching young minds develop critical thinking skills, the chess expert says he’ll miss the initial reaction from students who have never heard a foreign dialect before.

“I remember one little girl looked up and said, ‘Where are you from?”’ Domanski recalls. “I said, ‘I am from Sandpoint - why do you ask me?’ “She said: ‘Because you speak funny English.”’ At Washington Elementary School, Berryhill has volunteered to pick up the teaching torch passed on by Domanski.

“Only it won’t be a torch,” the principal says. “Nobody can follow him. It’ll be more like a match.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos

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