With 113 kids between the ages of 5 and 18 giving him their undivided attention, Neil Gleason dispenses some invaluable advice. 'It's bad manners to throw chess pieces around, even if you feel like doing it,' he tells the participants in Madison School & Community Recreation's seventh annual scholastic chess championship, held on a sunny but chilly Saturday morning last month.
Some of the kids, seated at long tables across from each other in a large corner room at the University of Wisconsin's Union South, wear fancy sweaters and T-shirts promoting Montessori education; others hockey jerseys and T-shirts promoting AC/DC. Fortunately, none of them look as if they might suddenly hurl a rook across the room.
'In a few minutes, you will shake hands with your first opponent,' continues Gleason, the tournament's organizer and himself an avid chess player. 'That will signal that the fight is about to begin. And it really is a fight. You're not using your fists, but you're using your brains. After the game, you will shake hands again ' even if you lose. And it's natural to feel sad when you lose. If you don't feel sad, maybe you should take up checkers.'
Many of these kids have no doubt left checkers behind forever, although maybe not too long ago. Tournament director George Alexander estimates that 80% of the tourney's 81 elementary-school-age players (and 60% of the 32 middle- and high-school-age participants) were competing in their first chess event.
'It's not mainstream,' Alexander admits. 'It's not what most kids are going to find interesting to do on a Saturday. But there's definitely interest in the game, and this city has produced some good chess players.'
He's referring to, among others, Jeremy Kane and Brian Luo. Both nationally ranked players have won past MSCR chess championships. Kane was the event's first-ever winner in 2001, and last month in Oshkosh, he helped lead the nationally acclaimed Madison West High School chess team to its fifth consecutive state championship. Luo, meanwhile, captured the MSCR tournament's elementary-school title as a first-grader and swept the middle/high-school division in second grade. Now a fourth-grader at Crestwood Elementary, he studies chess under Grandmaster Dmitry Gurevich in Chicago and is expected to represent the United States in the under-10 category at the World Chess Federation's World Youth Championships in November in Turkey.
Despite no longer appearing in local and state scholastic tournaments ' and spending his spring break this week in Mashantucket, Conn., competing against some of the world's top adult players in the prestigious Foxwoods Open ' Luo remains grounded by also playing piano, soccer and basketball. And he is realistic about his chances at Foxwoods. 'I'm probably still not advanced enough to play there,' he says. 'But I thought I'd take a shot at it.'
Few of the estimated 600 million people who play chess competitively, recreationally and online will ever be able to take a shot like that, and wanting to attain the same level of success as Kane and Luo is not the reason young people should take up the game. But while many adults haven't played since they were kids (if ever), a new generation of parents now recognizes that chess helps children sharpen their mental skills in ways that can help them immeasurably in the real world.
'There are some obvious benefits for young players, especially in their mathematical development,' says Alexander, a math instructor at Madison Area Technical College. 'But this goes way beyond math. The benefits of chess are that players learn about consequences. Decisions they make have long-term effects. Where you move a pawn early in the game ' even if it sits there for 20 or 30 moves ' has some long-term effect, good or bad. And you'll see the result of that move as the game goes on. The nature of chess encourages people to think ahead.'
'Chess can be so complicated,' says Andrea Gray of Evansville, whose 7-year-old son, Reagan, has been playing the game for two years. Last September, Reagan joined the Knights of the Chess Table, an organization of Oregon home-school students, and at the MSCR tournament, he took top honors in the second-grade category. 'But in the short time Reagan's been in the chess club, he's learned a lot. He even beats me, and I introduced him to the game.'
These days, more Madison kids than ever are being introduced to the game, thanks to MSCR-sponsored after-school chess clubs at six middle schools (Cherokee, Jefferson, Sennett, Sherman, Toki and Wright) and six elementary schools (Allis, Emerson, Franklin, Lake View, Mendota and Stephens). Some teachers also use chess as an indoor-recess or quiet-time activity.
'Chess can keep kids out of trouble, because it offers them structured activity,' says Peter Thompson, leader of the after-school chess club at Sennett Middle School, which meets to play and strategize every Thursday from 2:45 to 4 p.m. 'Playing chess can be used as a reward for students with behavioral/emotional needs, and as positive social interaction for students who need to develop social skills. It allows kids to process what it means to be a gracious winner and loser and to help keep things in perspective.'
While it's tough to determine exactly how many scholastic chess programs exist and how many students play, the United States Chess Federation reports that last spring, the SuperNationals tournament (held every four years and combining three spring national tournaments into one) attracted more than 5,300 players from kindergarten through 12th grade. According to the federation, it was the largest scholastic tournament in the country.
Locally, the combination of after-school programs, tournaments and citywide clubs (see sidebar) is vital to cultivating a deeper understanding of the game. If the thought of face-to-face competition early on is a little daunting, software programs like Chessmaster 9000 and popular (and anonymous ' kids aren't identified as kids) Web sites like Yahoo.com and Pogo.com offer young players additional outlets.
Gleason likens chess to another game kids often initially don't understand. 'Soccer, in its earliest days in the United States, struggled with a lack of competent coaching,' he says. 'Kids would play for a year or two and then drop away. But good coaches with a clear agenda elevated the game to a higher level.'
Chess is similar. 'Most of the players in the MSCR tournament were kids who were abiding by the rules and attempting to capture as many pieces as they could. But they weren't really playing for checkmate. That occurred to them late in the game ' maybe. Kids get involved in chess largely for competitive reasons. Then they hit a ceiling beyond which they cannot progress without some exposure to formal theory. Absent adults to provide that theory, kids reach a plateau in terms of skill and at some point lose interest. Just playing, in and of itself, will not make someone better.'
But just playing is the first step. Alexander and Thompson suggest that parents who think their children might enjoy chess sign them up for an after-school program or take them to one of the twice-monthly chess club meetings held at various public libraries around the city.
No experience is necessary. In fact, many current members of Sennett's after-school club had never previously picked up a pawn. 'It is a recreational activity that is supposed to be fun and enjoyable,' Thompson says. 'If students improve their game in the chess club, that is great. But it certainly isn't a requirement. And if they don't improve at all, that's fine, too. I want them to enjoy the camaraderie of playing and interacting with other kids who share a similar interest.'
'Conscientious parents expose their kids to all sorts of things, and then kids choose the things they like,' Gleason adds. 'Kids don't know how good they can be unless they give something a fair try. And that applies to everything in life ' not just chess.'
For more information about youth chess
Wisconsin Chess Academy
Wisconsin Chess Association
Wisconsin Scholastic Chess Federation
United States Chess Federation