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Schoolmates sock it to rival chess finalists

    The Akiva team run through some moves with coach John Fleetwood
    The Akiva team run through some moves with coach John Fleetwood

    "I won, yeah," grinned Alex Bentwood to a loud cheer from his teammates.

    Alex was one of six under-11s from the Akiva Junior School in Finchley, north London competing in the finals of the National Primary School Chess Championships this week.

    As his teammates filtered in one by one from the playing hall, in the Mercure Hotel outside Northampton, they gave a breathless run-down of the remaining games.

    "Natan is winning; Izzy is smashing his opponent…" said Noah Shapiro, who was one of the first to return to be eagerly greeted by parents waiting to find out the results.

    This was the second time pupils from Akiva reached the finals and this year it was the only state - and Jewish - school to do so. Two years ago, the very same boys, bar one, came third in the under-nines tournament.

    Every time I make a good move, there's a party in my head

    "This has been an incredible journey for them. They're such a great team," said Gil Levy, father of Liad. "I looked around the room and there was definitely a sense of pride."

    The tension in the team-room was palpable as the boys emerged from their second game of the day; a mixture of relief and delight written all over their faces. They congregated around a chessboard and went through their moves with coach John Fleetwood. Their animated chatter was full of updates and guesswork: "You know Westminster - they're being smashed! And Habs won five points."

    Although excellence is clearly key, there was a great sense of teamwork, too. "If a boy loses a round, he has to come and tell his teammates," said parent Shoshana Boyd Gelfand. "But they all reassure each other; they are very sweet with each other.

    "What's great is that playing chess has given the boys confidence and they have really learnt that if they work hard at something they can be really good at it."

    The finals took place over two days with the boys playing seven other teams. When the points were totted up at the end of the tournament on Wednesday, Akiva were placed fourth, narrowly missing out on a top three place.

    "I'm kind of disappointed, but it was fun," said Izzy Baron-Cohen.

    Before the finals, the boys had brushed up on strategy and sharpened their concentration. "I enjoy the tactics, how you move the pieces, how to trap the king and win," said Noah, who has just been selected to represent the England Primary School Chess Association (EPSCA) under-11 team as part of the National Chess Squad.

    "I can now think six or seven moves ahead. There are three variations for every move and you have to think of every single one," he added.

    The boys are all are remarkable for their natural ability but it was not just sheer talent at play - they had tricks up their sleeves.

    "One day, I took off my shoes before a match and I smashed my opponent," said Izzy. "So I told the whole team to take off their shoes for every game. It's now our lucky charm."

    "And I have my lucky jumper," said Noah, grinning. "I wear my hoodie over my eyes to put off my opponents." There was mention of a pair of lucky pants, too.

    Whatever it takes, the boys love the rush of victory, the moment when they can cry out, "checkmate".

    "Every time I make a good move, it's like there's a party in my head," said Liad. "And if I win the match there's an even bigger party in my head."

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