SHEBOYGAN (AP) - If you see a car around town with a "Chess Nut" vanity plate, it's likely Ellen Wanek's.
Wanek, 61, devotes much of her retired life to the game of chess. She's a coach at four Sheboygan schools, she privately teaches about 10 students every week and she helps out at many of the area's weekend chess tournaments.
"The woman is addicted to chess," said Al Wanek, Ellen's husband.
Wanek isn't alone. There's a growing interest in chess that's sweeping across Sheboygan County schools, the Sheboygan Press reported. Nearly 200 area youth competed in the annual Acuity Chess Invitational in late February put on by Acuity and the Wisconsin Scholastic Chess Federation.
Shawn Chrisman, director of the Acuity tournament, said more than 15 Sheboygan County schools were represented at the weekend tournament and he estimated around 400 youth in Sheboygan County are active in chess in some fashion.
The Acuity Invitational is one of about 10 tournaments offered in Sheboygan County from November to March each year. A few years ago, there weren't even half that many though, said Katie Delahunt, WSCF board member.
When Delahunt moved to the Sheboygan area about eight years ago from Milwaukee, she said she was amazed that Sheboygan didn't have many chess tournaments. Her children had been active in chess at their previous school and she missed having that opportunity for them.
"In Milwaukee, chess was a huge thing," Delahunt said. "You played chess during the lunch hour or after school. Some schools were very elaborate and they even hired experts to coach. They'd bring in experts from Russia that are top players worldwide."
Delahunt, the Sheboygan/Kohler Municipal Court judge, said she was instrumental in getting tournaments started in Sheboygan about six years ago and ever since then, chess has really taken off.
"The thing with tournaments is it motivates (the students)," Delahunt said. "The kids who are in a club then have a purpose."
Wanek said she became involved with chess tournaments after volunteering for one at what was then Holy Name School about four years ago, and she's been hooked ever since.
"When I saw this type of chess tournament with so many children, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was just loving every minute of it," Wanek said. "I have just really been giving my life to this the last few years through scholastic chess because I can see it just benefitting so many different areas of people's lives."
Among the numerous benefits chess offers, Wanek said it can boost IQ, promote creative thinking, improve teens' decision-making skills and it can even help prevent dementia.
Delahunt said she likes that chess provides a different way for students to get involved at school.
"For kids who aren't maybe basketball players or who don't have another activity to do during the winter, it's something great for them to do," she said. "And they really enjoy it and it gets them focused and they learn how to win and lose. There are just so many benefits."
The tournament at Acuity is unique in that it is the only area tournament that is free. Most tournaments charge $10 or so per competitor.
"It brings more kids out who have never played in a tournament before," said Chrisman. "A lot of parents think, OK if this is a free tournament then I'll try it out and as long as I know my kid likes it, I'll spend that time."
Random Lake seventh-grader Alexander Jentsch was new at the Acuity tournament this year. Even though Jentsch said he's been playing chess since about second grade, this was the first year he participated in tournaments.
Jentsch said he likes playing chess because it "keeps your brain working."
His mom, Sheila Jentsch, said that even though she can't play chess very well, she likes it because her son likes it, which is why she got permission from the Random Lake schools administration to start a chess club next year.
"Right now (my son) is the only one going to tournaments," she said. "But I know there are other kids who play chess so I'm trying to get a group going."
It was just last year that Lake Country Academy, Horace Mann Middle School, Lincoln Erdman Elementary, the Mosaic School and Grant Elementary/ESAA got clubs started. They already had a combined total of nearly 100 kids in the Acuity tournament this year.
Three of those schools - Horace Mann, Lincoln-Erdman and Lake Country - are Wanek's proteges. She also coaches at Sheboygan Christian School.
"Having this in place as an educational tool is phenomenal, but the personal life values and training that this gives goes beyond even that," Wanek said.
"It has been just an absolute wonderful time for my life. Here I am, I'm older, and instead of becoming a couch potato, this has just been a whole new horizon to really give your life to and I think it's a worthwhile mission because these children are really being blessed by it," she said.