By Megan Mann/SCVNEWS.com
Some of the nation’s top youth chess players were in Santa Clarita this weekend, competing for a chance to represent California in two national tournaments later this year.
The 2012 SuperStates Chess Championships were hosted by the California Youth Chess League (CYCL), a Santa Clarita-based nonprofit, at the Hyatt Regency Valencia hotel through Sunday.
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More than 600 children ages 5 thru 17 are participating in the competition, which kicked off Friday evening with a fun, 2-player-team round of “Bughouse.”
“This is a unique event,” said founding CYCL Director Jay Stallings. “The state championships have typically been divided into three tournaments – elementary, junior high and high school championships. All three have been held on three different weekends throughout Southern California. We’ve combined those three into one venue and one weekend, and we’re calling it SuperStates.”
The top players in this weekend’s competition will qualify to represent California in two national tournaments this summer – the Denker Tournament of High School Champions and the Barber Tournament of K-8 Champions – both scheduled during the first week of August in Vancouver, Wash.
Stallings, who is referred to as Coach Jay by his 700-plus Santa Clarita chess students, credits his wife Michel for keeping the event organized.
“She’s the one who makes sure all of the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed and turns a functional event into a great event,” said Stallings.
Together they’ve brought together dozens of chess clubs and school chess teams, from as far north as Bakersfield to as far south as Heber, a town just this side of the Mexican border, to participate in the first SuperStates event. 
“We have some of the strongest teams in the nation competing here,” Stallings said.
More than 130 kids participating in the competition are from Santa Clarita.
On Saturday the players were divided into two rooms, one for the “Reserve Section” and the other for the “Open Section.” Each competitor played three rounds of chess against opponents of similar age and ability.
“These are the lower-rated players,” said Stallings. “They haven’t been playing as long, maybe they don’t have lessons as often or they don’t play in as many tournaments. For them it’s just a fun thing to compete in.”
The other room – the championship room, or Open Section, was filled with “extremely tough players.”
“Some of them are No. 1 in the United States for their age. And they’re vicious, great players who study on a daily basis. Some of them have up to five or six hours of private lessons a week, plus they’re playing online for another 20 hours a week in some cases.”
“You learn to be resourceful,” he said. “All of the time you’re in situations where there are issues on the chess board and you have to resolve them. It gets that creative side of the brain going, and then of course they have to calculate, and all of these things translate into a well-rounded kid, one that is not only going to score well on tests – which has been proven with research – but also a kid that’s creative and that you enjoy talking to.”
Stallings has traveled the world playing chess. He attended and played chess for the University of Alicante, about 100 miles south of Valencia, Spain, before he finished his degree at the University of Texas.
The father of two started teaching chess to Santa Clarita kids in 1994. In 1996, he and his wife founded the California Youth Chess League, a nonprofit 501c3 organization dedicated to teaching children critical thinking skills, study skills, sportsmanship and etiquette.
“For some, it’s a game, sure,” Stallings said. “For others it’s a sport. It’s an endeavor and a commitment.”
CYCL hosts evening and after-school chess programs at several local elementary schools, as well as group lessons twice a week.
Kids can participate in free chess play during CYCL meetings on Mondays at Vincenzo’s Pizza in Newhall, and Thursdays at the Lighthouse Learning Center on Constellation Road in Santa Clarita.
“Perhaps it’s not for everybody,” Stallings admitted. “It takes a thick skin in the beginning and the right attitude. My first tournament, I didn’t win a game. But I kept playing.”