BY Smriti Sinha
More than 600 chess enthusiasts gathered at Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain in late September and took their places at long communal tables covered with hundreds of shiny plastic chess boards and manual stop watches. Chess-in-the-Schools, a non-profit organization that has run chess programs in New York City public schools for the past 27 years, had organized the 13th Annual Rapid Open Chess Tournament as a kick-off for the school year.
The organization was established in 1986 to improve after-school options for at-risk elementary school students. What began as an eight-week program where a chess player went to different schools to familiarize kids with how the pieces move, has grown to a 32-week program that pays more than 30 instructors and has produced prodigies such as Justus Williams, who at 12 had become the youngest African-American National Master. Williams, now 14, also won all the six rounds at Central Park and won the trophy in the Championship section. Five out of nine other student winners were Chess-in-the-Schools trainees.
The foundation raises about $2.1 million every year, and the program is available in 51 schools in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, with another 50 are on the waiting list. Each site costs the foundation $25,000.
“Move after move in chess, kids learn not to rush before making a judgment,” said Susan Polgar, who was the first woman Grandmaster, the highest title in the sport, and has been coaching for the past 17 years. “That’s a life skill that we all need.”
Chess-in-the-Schools says that the game connects to improved school performance. “Our high school students have a zero percent dropout rate,” said Sarah Pitari, Vice President of Programs, who has been with the organization for a decade. The foundation expanded into a College Bound program 12 years ago which helps 140 high school students every year with SAT preparation, internships, and community service weekends from New York City to South Dakota. Travel abroad trips are also part of this program.
“After starting chess in seventh grade, I feel I communicate better… I’m able to speak up my opinions without being embarrassed,” said Bronx High School of Science freshman Svetanica Augustine, who is now in the College Bound program and was a paid volunteer for the Central Park event. “You can easily get distracted in class, but chess helps me concentrate.”
One of the participants at the Central Park event, PS11 computer teacher Nick Rubinfier, recalled an incident when one of his students, with low scores and facing suspension, took to chess in fourth grade. “When she came back from suspension, the Chess-in-the-Schools instructor suggested she join the team,” said Rubinfier. “After that every tournament we went to, she won every game. She got in less trouble with other students and finished her time at PS11 with her best test scores ever. I would be willing to swear that it was chess that changed her life.”
“I don’t think it can work for everyone, but there are so many young people who need what chess can offer: A way to be judged not on your outsides, or your physical ability, but on your mind and how you use it,” said Rubinfier.
Andrew Ro, whose son Benjamin goes to PS11, has experienced this. Last year, when Benjamin traveled to Nashville, TN, for the U.S nationals as a second grader, he held his own in front of seventh and eighth graders. “You can’t do that in soccer. It gave him a lot of confidence,” said Ro.
A 1998 study of 571 elementary school students across four schools in Houston, Texas, found that the 67 students who participated in a school chess club showed twice the improvement of 504 non-chess players in reading and mathematics standard scores between third and fifth grades on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. America’s Foundation for Chess also commissioned a study to assess the impact of the game on reading and math and among the 221 chess-playing elementary school students surveyed in 2009 across Seattle, Chicago and Houston, 64.2 percent said it helps them in those areas.
Vladimir Bugayev, a National Master and coach whose daughter won her first three matches at the Central Park event, believes that chess particularly helps with math. “The bishop moves diagonal, the knight takes a perpendicular position, so the kids are always learning about shapes which helps them in geometry,” said Bugayev. “Analyzing that taking the rook which has five points is better than the knight or bishop which carries only three gets them through math during school hours.”