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Chess makes move at area grade schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 18, 2009 - “Remember, queens like to have their shoes match their dress!” says Matt Lodge, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis scholastic coordinator.

This past Friday, May 15, was the rest day before the final two rounds of the U.S. Chess Championship. In place of the professionals, the top ranked chess players from two St. Louis city schools are taking over the club to put their skills to the test against their peers in a two-round interschool tournament.

Kid-size pairs of legs swing in anticipation or rest under the wooden chessboards at the club’s Central West End location as the King of Glory Lutheran and City Academy students, ages 10 to 12, set up their boards. Once the students have their queens color-coordinated with the appropriate black or white squares, Lodge issues a final directive. “Everyone shake hands.”

And then, with the push of the clock timers on each table, the students are off. Some keep their hands directly on a piece and slide tentatively. Others move quickly with “zooo-ooom” sound effects. Still others test out a move before removing their hand from the piece and then, suddenly seeing a better spot, move it back.

Both King of Glory and City Academy began implementing the CCSCSL curriculum, which introduces students to the board piece by piece, earlier this year. “We lay out a goal for each class period,” says City Academy’s director of curriculum and instruction Matt Virgil, “and the kids understand that’s the goal.”

Abbas Alihussain, a student at King of Glory, says, “It was hard and difficult to learn all the moves you could.” Now, however, he relishes in the potential of the back row pieces, which he says are his favorite.

“A lot of them had never played before and were trying to incorporate rules from checkers into chess,” says King of Glory teacher Joel Gilbert. Soon they caught on and now, “it’s neat to see kids showing other kids where they’re doing something wrong,” he says.

True to form, when City Academy’s Daysia Willams attempts to jump her rook over one of King of Glory student Danielle Jet’s pawns, Danielle lets her know, “You can’t do that.” Daysia quickly decides on another move.

“The message is embedded in the game – planning ahead,” says Lodge. Lodge’s observation is echoed in the young voices of the students.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” says City Academy student Lailah Elliot.

Tony Rich, executive director of CCSCSL, expects that a longitudinal research study being conducted by Saint Louis University and the University of Missouri-Columbia will prove the link between chess participation and success in school. “There are lots of anecdotal stories,” says Rich, “but there haven’t been any that have been this scientific.”

The club, which is also working with Fanning Middle and Mann Elementary, hopes to eventually expand chess programming from the city to surrounding counties.

As the students near the end of the second round of play, a smattering of “Checks” can be heard across the second-floor playing area. King of Glory emerges as the winner and is awarded a green and gold trophy after the whole crew poses for a group picture.

Finally, the kids are let loose – well, relatively speaking – to play against whomever they choose and recap the events of the morning.

“Some stuff is hard, but you gotta think about it,” says Lailah. “Once you win, you feel good.”

Anna Vitale is a freelance writer. 

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