Perhaps no school can better attest to the benefits of living in the U.S. capital of chess than one that sits right in its epicenter.
Last weekend, the chess team from New City School - a private, secular elementary school just a half mile from the city’s Central West End chess campus - made its first national appearance, competing in the 2014 National Elementary Championships in Dallas. Nine kids made the trip and brought home impressive results: Five fifth-graders finished just five points short of first place, combining for a seventh-place team finish in the K-5 section for ratings U900.
Even better, New City’s sixth-graders finished in sixth-place in the K-6 U1000 section, only 2.5 points out of first.
To be fair, the U1000 section is considered the “kiddy pool” next to the highly competitive championship section, but the story is how quickly the New City team has found itself on America’s radar -- call it osmosis -- since the nation’s finest chess resources started gathering in its backyard.
“The club started by just starting - just letting the kids play each other and almost letting them teach themselves,” said Bob Schmidt, New City’s parent organizer who began the club with four kids, two his own sons, 10 years ago. “I didn’t know what a pin was, what a skewer was. I knew what basic chess was, and I made sure they knew the rules, but then I was like a babe in the woods. A big turning point was when a parent approached me and said he wanted to help. I asked ‘Do you know how to play chess?’ and he told me that, actually, he was pretty good. I said ‘Great - you’re coach.’”
Now a club with teaching structure, his players showed immediate bloom, though the parent-led education showed signs of stall when the students soon became the masters. It prompted Schmidt to poke around St. Louis’ growing chess reserves and see what professional coaching might do for his program. He was connected to Andre Diamant, a Brazilian grandmaster on the Webster University collegiate team, who began coaching the team and had explosive growth.
“One of the things that surprised me is just the difference of teaching styles when you have a grandmaster,” Schmidt said. “Even my view of chess has changed: It’s not so much an aggressive game as it is a series of changing puzzles, and every position is a puzzle that needs to be solved. (Diamant) did a lot of work with the kids with puzzles on paper, which surprised me that the kids responded to that. And when they got to the board, he would set up positions and have contests that challenged the kids to find the right move.”
The grandmaster effects on New City were immediate: The team became Missouri’s K-6 state champion and has held the title for three years running. This year, the 70-player program - that’s one for every five New City students - doubled its efforts, expanding its chess season from September to May and bringing in grandmasters twice a week.
And when Diamant had to take a step back due to obligations as a Webster student, GM Ben Finegold was brought in six weeks ago and went to immediate work sharpening the kids for the national stage.
“I’m always trying to help get them better at chess, but also how to prepare for a tournament,” Finegold said. “What you should be doing at a tournament, like sleeping and preparing in between games, how to make use of their time. Most kids play so fast, but at nationals you have 90 minutes per game - play is a lot slower. We talk a lot about tournament strategy.”
Last weekend, the New City team was paced by fifth-grader Reza Mofidi, who went undefeated with five wins and two draws. And if his team represents the effects of living in America’s chess capital, Reza might be the definition: The boy has been a private student of Finegold for three years.
“We haven’t even been pushing the kids really hard, and we did far better than we thought we’d do in a national competition,” Schmidt said. “We’ve turned around completely. Twice a week practice and direct access to the chess club; in my mind we’re going to be dominant team in the nation in the coming years, just like we’re already the dominant team in the state. There’s such an exciting future for this team.”
Brian Jerauld is a chess instructor to area students, including his own children, and a student of the game himself through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He is also a Mizzou journalist with a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other odds and ends. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.