VILONIA — The recent regional chess tournament hosted by Vilonia School District had 185 students from 23 school districts registered to play. Chess is becoming trendy, officials said.

Buses sat in the parking lot from places like Van Buren and Pocahontas. Students wore T-shirts with names such as Lakeside High School in Hot Springs allowing one to know they had traveled about three hours to play. Also, perhaps, Lakeside students wore the shirts in the hopes it would intimidate the ones playing against them. That high school has bragging rights as being the state chess champs for the past two years, said sponsor David Slay. And, on Saturday, Slay said, about eight students were at the event to defend the title. Lakeside took top honors again while Vilonia finished 10th.

Slay said that Lakeside has one of the larger chess clubs in the state with more than 20 players. He has served as the coach for the past five years. For about two years, he said, it was a small team.

"Somehow it has become cool to be on the chess team at Lakeside, and I am lucky that it has gotten there," Slay explained. A physician in Hot Springs, Slay coaches the team in his spare time. His wife, Heather, teaches English at the school. With the busy flu season, he said, much of his contact with the players has been in conjunction with an online chess site where the team meets in a chat room. He conducts a weekly lecture as well as holds online competitions with him critiquing and "tearing games apart."

Prior to a tournament, he said, he makes time for at least four face to face meets. Slay began playing in High School and developed his skills throughout college. Slay described chess as a game where "the more you play, the better you get."

Chess, he said, has had a reputation that it tends to be a game just for just "geeks." Gesturing his hand around the room where the students were readying to play, he said, that stereotype may be how the game is typically marketed to the public but "things are changing." His team, he said, has several players who he referred to as jock-types, including several soccer players.

"When you put the clock in, it is a sport," he added. "It is actually a highly competitive sport along the same lines as band."

Vilonia High School teacher and chess sponsor Cheryl Sloan agrees with Slay on all points. This is the second year for chess at VHS. Six students were competing in the Saturday competition. Only one, Jacob Sundine, who is a junior, was a returning player from last year.

"We are a young team," Sloan said. However, the team placed fifth last year in regional. "We placed high enough to go to state," Sundine offered. Yet, their winning streak stopped there. Sloan and Sundine were adamant about the game being an intense sport.

Sloan, who has been teaching at VHS for about four years, said she began sponsoring chess at VHS at the request of a student after he saw the chess board set up in her classroom. It was the students at Red Bud High School that taught her to play, she said, when she was teaching there.

"Now that is a school where the students are serious about playing," she added. Lakeside took home the win for the larger school districts. Vilonia placed 10th in their division in the regional tournament, one of two, that is held in the state. Those who fared well in the regional will now advance to state competition.