Chess started as a pawn - a welcome distraction, teacher Chris Nielsen hoped, for students seeking refuge from the anarchy of a high school cafeteria.

"I said, 'Hey, come to my room for lunch,' " recalled Nielsen, a math instructor at Edward W. Bok Technical High School. "They were bored. I said, 'Hey, let's play chess.' "

And so they did - so well, in the case of Bok senior Anthony Upsey, that the game became something of a kingmaker.

Upsey was one of five area high school students to receive college scholarships for chess proficiency as part of the Philadelphia Youth Chess Challenge, an After School Activities Partnerships (ASAP) initiative. The announcement came Monday afternoon in a ceremony at City Hall, with picture-snapping parents, clap-happy coaches, and officials such as Mayor Nutter and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) in attendance.

In his remarks, Nutter spoke of a childhood affinity for the game as a mental stimulant, proceeding to cite a Temple University study showing that ASAP students displayed a comparative edge in reading and math exam scores, as well as school attendance.

He also divulged a rock-bottom chess moment from earlier this year, when the mayor, while attending a youth tournament, was forced to capitulate to a 9-year-old girl.

"I don't think about the experience more than once a day," he insisted.

Perhaps he should have taken his cues from Upsey, whose trademark Queen's Gambit maneuver - "D-4 to C-4, queen pawn up, queen's bishop pawn up twice," to use his Battleship-speak - earned him third place in an annual tournament sponsored by the Eagles.

"You can either accept the gambit or decline," said the North Philadelphia native, eyes wide as he rubbed the tattoo on his right forearm. "I'm good both ways."

Upsey credits the game with teaching him patience and foresight, skills he honed while watching Bobby Fischer highlight reels on YouTube.

"Every move," he said, "has a consequence."

For Upsey, Sam Beccaria of the Science Leadership Academy, Nick Spinosi of the Academy at Palumbo, and Samantha Ruffin and Sijan Lama from Carver High School, the move to take up chess produced the best of consequences: scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $2,500 to attend Drexel University, Temple University, or Community College of Philadelphia.

"You are role models," Nutter told the honorees.

His 9-year-old foe enjoyed no such praise.

Contact staff writer Matt Flegenheimer at 215-854-5614 or mflegenheimer@phillynews.com.