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The Queen's Gambit, a recent work of fiction by Walter Tevis that is climbing up the bestseller lists, is the story of an eight-year-old girl who learns to play chess in the basement of an orphanage and eventually becomes an international grandmaster.

In a case of life imitating art, students from Elementary School 27, located in a low-income section of Indianapolis, came away from Memphis earlier this month with the National Elementary School Chess Championship.

According to Robert Cotter, a teacher at the school who organized the student chess club three years ago, students became interested in the game "because it is the only sport we can afford."

"Many people think chess is too cerebral for children this young, and at the beginning it was slow and painstaking," Mr. Cotter said. "But when we started we set a goal of winning the national championship in May 1983. We never lost sight of that."

Playing chess, he added, has also helped the students academically. ''They've come to realize that to become a nationally-respected competitor you have to read well," he said. "They have to read whatever chess literature they can, including Soviet chess magazines. Most of it is geared to adult an readership, so they have to study at home. Probably the most important thing this has done is to teach them to concentrate. They can stay on one task longer than 90 percent of the kids their age."

Mr. Cotter said school officials are talking to Soviet Embassy officials in order to arrange a tour in that country.

Parents and students in the Cincinnati school district appeared to be divided in their opinions of the safety and discipline policies of the schools, according to a recently released survey by the district.

About 82 percent of the parents surveyed said that their elementary-school students were safe in school, and about 76 percent said that the discipline was good--4 and 5 percent increases from a similar survey taken in March, 1981.

The district received 7,892 responses in the direct-mail survey for a return rate of 57 percent, a district spokesman said.

About 56 percent of the high-school students said they felt safe, but only 41 percent of the junior-high students said they felt safe.

Forty-two percent of junior high school students and 44 percent of high school students said that their schools' discipline was good.

Some 53 percent of the high-school students and 37 percent of the junior high school students said that they could buy drugs in schools.

School officials said the survey strengthened the district's commitment to converting the remaining six junior high schools to middle schools to help alleviate the "growing pains" that such students experience.

Cleveland's school-bus drivers struck just after midnight last Wednesday, forcing about 30,000 of the city's 78,000 students to find another way to get to school.

The drivers, who are represented by a local unit of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees, have been working without a contract for nearly two years and have been negotiating with the school board since August.

The major issues, according to a union spokesman, are not economic. They include disciplinary procedures; the association's demand for an ''agency-shop" provision requiring all employees covered by the contract to pay union dues, whether or not they are union members; limits on the board's authority to hire substitute drivers; and release time for officers to conduct union business. Drivers have also complained about poor maintenance of the district's fleet.

The union notified the school board late Tuesday that drivers "were tired of the continued delay in effective negotiations." Later in the evening, the drivers reaffirmed a strike-authorization vote taken in February.

Superintendent Frederick D. Holliday said that schools would remain open and that students were expected to attend. The district made public-transportation passes available to students.

A federal mediator entered the talks Wednesday morning. Ohio law prohibits strikes by public employees, but government agencies have often chosen not to invoke the statute.

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