ELEVATE: 'Chess Is Our Football'

Game builds positive school culture, cognitive skills for life

OKLAHOMA CITY (Nov. 10, 2017) – Max Sartin’s hobby helps him focus, but that’s not why he plays.
“I like chess because it’s a mini-game of fighting,” the first-grader said, rearranging plastic arms and legs to transmute his Transformer from robot to vehicle as he waited for the second round in the tournament to begin.


In Max’s mind, the kings and queens wield bows and arrows as he calculates their advance toward each other on the board. When he plays against his grandpa at home, he usually wins. “It’s kind of like you’re playing a math problem,” he says.
Max attends Ida Freeman Elementary School in Edmond, where the chess club is celebrating its 20th anniversary. In its first year, it was exclusive to a handful of fifth-graders, but over the years, its popularity has permeated, and in some ways defined, the school culture. Last year, the club welcomed kindergartners for the first time. Those 4- and 5-year-olds, whom coaches affectionately call “the Littles,” went on to win the state championship for their grade.
David Nichols, a fifth-grade math and science teacher, said it all started when he noticed children choosing chess as an option during inside recess. He decided to make the gatherings official. Today, his chess club has 80 members, meets for three hours after school each Tuesday, and travels to all-day tournaments on Saturdays throughout the year. The game is so popular, there are 150 chess boards in the building. Even kids who aren’t active in the club play with friends before school.
“Chess is our football, is what the principal calls it,” Nichols said. 
Building classroom skills
Robbyn Glinsmann, director of elementary mathematics for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, has seen direct benefits of chess in the classroom from her work as an instructional coach in Edmond Public Schools and at Ida Freeman. Although the game does not target specific learning objectives, she says frequent gameplay can heighten cognitive skills needed to strengthen performance in multiple subject areas.
“Chess is a high-intensity game that requires patience, dedication and problem solving. You must think ahead two to three steps and see what is coming next. When a curveball is thrown by the opponent, you have to rethink your strategy on the fly and within split seconds,” Glinsmann said. “This mental toughness activates both sides of the brain and builds stamina within the player. This stamina spills over into the classroom as students are now seen as risk-takers and can concentrate more because of the muscle memory built within them.”


Nichols says chess is particularly helpful for visual learners to develop spatial reasoning skills – if a piece is repositioned, how will the board look different? Spatial reasoning is used by architects when they design buildings, by authors visualizing characters, by chemists who study the three-dimensional structure of a molecule, by surgeons to navigate the human body and by sculptors who see a masterpiece within a mound of clay.
Nichols said teachers can use chess as an entry point for instruction, capitalizing on a player’s increased ability to focus on multi-step scenarios.
“Those kids for whom traditional instruction strategies aren’t really successful, there’s something about chess that helps them. And a good teacher will help extrapolate that to other, more traditional learning modes,” Nichols said.
Advait Patel, 15, is Oklahoma’s first international master, as ranked by the World Chess Federation. Naturally competitive, the four-time state champion attends Carl Albert High School in Midwest City and is captivated by the strategy required in the game. He says chess has improved his performance in school and helped spark his interest in computer science.
“Last year, we had a programming project where we had to make a game. Sometimes you have to break processes down into stages and just manage one part at a time. That’s kind of like how you make a plan in chess,” said Advait, who added that chess has given him more clarity for planning and calculation.
‘It knows no barriers’
Educators see chess, a game that dates to the 6th century, as an equalizer. With a basic chess set costing less than $10, rules that are easy to explain and diligence the key to success, anyone can learn to play, Glinsmann said.
“The amazing thing to me is that chess is accessible by any age, race, religion or gender of a student,” said Glinsmann. “It knows no barriers and can be mastered by anyone who is willing to work. This is why you see it succeeding so much in lower-income areas, because something besides athletics is now appealing to students and helps them find success within their own hard work.”
 Nichols said academic progress is not an indicator of success in chess. He has seen students of all types pick up the game, whether on individualized education programs or in accelerated classes.
 “A lot of times we hear about chess being the domain of the gifted and talented programs in school. We have as many kids who are on IEPs as we do kids who are achieving normally or are identified as gifted,” Nichols said.
In fact, he said it was a special-needs child who won a state championship that inspired him to keep the club going for so long.
“He brought his trophy in, set it on the table, looked at me across the table and said, ‘Mr. Nichols, thank you for teaching me how to play chess.’ I said you’re welcome. He said, ‘No really, because I ain’t never been good at anything in school the way I’m good at this.’ That fueled my passion,” Nichols said.
Nichols said chess helps prepare kids for the real world.
“Chess teaches so many life lessons. A lot of kids are good at a lot of things when they first try it. Chess is not one of those things,” Nichols said. “Everyone has to go through a period of paying dues. Chess punishes bad decision-making just like life does.”
Personal transformations
With the addition of the kindergartners to the chess team, Nichols sought out the help of additional volunteers by contacting Ida Freeman alumni.
Jonathan Kennedy and Rachel Lopez are two of the adult volunteers who help Tuesdays after school, starting by gathering the Littles around a huge board to explain how the pieces move, then letting them play in pairs as volunteers move about the room.
“Right now, we’re trying to instill the basics. At the kindergarten age, they can’t quite see the full board and the moves ahead. They just aren’t quite there yet. But once they hit first, second grade, they’ll just skyrocket,” Kennedy said.
Lopez transferred her three children into the school because of the positive experience she had growing up. Her chess friendships that began in fifth grade have lasted into adulthood. For her daughter, who last year was crowned the fourth-grade state champion, chess has been transformational.
“With my daughter, the first time we did chess tournaments, she would have meltdowns if she didn’t win because she’s a very determined person, very hard on herself,” Lopez said. “At the end of the year, she wasn’t like that. Her whole personality had changed. At some point, there was a change, and she started enjoying it more. It helped her grow to be a better overall kid.”
Kennedy said it’s not uncommon to see children grow with the game.
“In chess, you learn more from losing. You learn more from what not to do,” Kennedy said. “We try to make sure they understand that losing is also a positive experience.”
The character-building also extends to discipline, not just in the game but in classroom success, too. Kennedy said that in elementary school, if he didn’t turn in his homework, he missed out on chess.
“One of the biggest things back then was we had discipline points, so we had a reason to stay in line,” Kennedy said. “If your points dropped, you weren’t allowed to go to tournaments. We had 40 to 50 kids playing, so you would miss out on the entire group. Mr. Nichols stayed on top of you and made sure your classwork came first.”
Nichols notes that civility and sportsmanship are inherit in the game of chess and said office referrals on chess players at Ida Freeman are almost nonexistent.
“What you will see is that after the instructions are given and before the first round, the tournament director will start them and they’ll all shake hands and the room will go silent. You’ve never seen 360 kids be that quiet in one place at one time,” Nichols said.
Gameplay also forces kids to slow down and think through their decisions. Advait said whenever he tries to teach someone how to play chess, the biggest lesson is fighting the urge to move quickly.
“The hardest part is just to get them to think, because they’re often impatient. Really, the best thing I tell them is to sit on their hands. It usually works,” Advait said. “If your opponent is playing really fast, you don’t need to play fast to win. If you sit down to think, you can beat your opponent way easier than just playing quickly.”
Max’s mother, watching him twist Transformers with his friends after the first round of the tournament, agrees chess helps him be more well-rounded.
“It teaches him a lot of discipline. He has to sit still and really think through all the options. Chess is a slow game. It’s not like something where you move the pawns and you win,” said Sara Sartin, who admits she doesn’t have enough patience to play. “I’m in awe watching him.”
Annette Price is communications and constituent services specialist at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
PHOTOS: First-grader Max Sartin contemplates a move during the Carl Albert K-12 Scholastic Open chess tournament at Carl Albert High School in Midwest City on Sept. 23. Max attends Ida Freeman Elementary School in Edmond and was part of the kindergarten state championship team last year.
Students compete at the Carl Albert K-12 Scholastic Open chess tournament at Carl Albert High School in Midwest City on Sept. 23. Educators say chess builds cognitive stamina.
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Last updated on January 2, 2018