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On Chess: Chess season in full swing at local schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 6, 2013 - The “slow season” has hit the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis – that is, no more national championships to host, no world-class tournaments to display, no super-elite grandmasters to pamper – at least until next year.

The irony is that, as fall nears its endgame, the season for chess is just heating up. In the rain or the cold, the sleet or the snow – pick your prison – chess serves as an excellent escape, especially for youngsters who would otherwise plug themselves in to a television or video game to get away.

Just as September’s Sinquefield Cup was approaching its closing ceremonies, the Central West End facility was simultaneously and seamlessly transitioning from its label as a Chess Club to that of a Scholastic Center. With the restart of school came the invasion of the club’s scholastic programming around St. Louis.

And the word “invasion” was not used by mistake. The program has developed an army of more than 40 trained instructors – just regular chess folk, enthusiasts of the game – who ultimately create lesson plans on their own and work to develop unique classes that spill out beyond the club and into the broader community. The program predominantly targets elementary schools – upward of 40 each month, which combine for nearly 120 individual classes – mostly as after-school programming. Over time, however, more and more districts are realizing chess’ valuable educational contributions and are beginning to pull the “game” right into their daily curriculum.

Liken it to sneaking vegetables in their ice cream. Students simultaneously celebrate the chance to play games (at school?!) for an hour, while they unknowingly push their brains into overdrive. Chess challenges its players to take on an overwhelmingly complex mass of information in a short period of time. So, for kids, the goal becomes the introduction of simple steps based on clear concepts: King safety, control of the center, pawn structure, and the inherent ideas of time, space and force. We’re beyond learning just how the pieces move. We’re teaching your second-grader how to create and execute a plan.

“Because chess requires systematic study and reflective thought, it promotes a methodical approach to problem-solving, it enhances our organizational skills, and it emphasizes further development and effort to reach our goals,” said CCSCSL scholastic coordinator Matt Barrett. “Every prodigy is a natural talent, so developing particularly strong chess players is not our goal. Rather, we want to use chess as the means to learn how to improve our performance.”

And for those who catch the fever, the scholastic program is working to guide students toward continued opportunity. The Chess Club and Scholastic Center regularly hosts tournaments for beginners and is exploring partnerships that would further competitive league play and add additional regional tournaments throughout the area.

Does your child know how to play chess? Perhaps it’s time to challenge them and find out – or maybe it’s time to see what kind of chances you have left against them. The penitentiary of winter is on its way, and killing time can become a challenge. Before your kid plugs in for an afternoon, make a deal with them: A game of chess in exchange for an hour of television.

Super Mario has nothing on these brain veggies.

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 Saint 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.