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Checkmate

After-school chess clubs help elementary students in Beaverton make a move
by: JONATHAN HOUSE, William Walker Elementary student Eduardo Zuniga Solano ponders his next move during the beginner-level chess club that meets at the school twice a week.

Seated at a table in the cafeteria at William Walker Elementary School with a chessboard between them, two third-grade girls were engaged in a conversation about their favorite elements of the game.

'I like the horses. I like how the pieces move - how some move diagonal, some of the jump over, some of them can move anywhere,' said Molly McGukin.

Taylor McKercher agreed, adding, 'I kind of like the white horse, too.'

Just behind them at another table, a couple of boys conferred about whether a specific move was permitted under the set of rules they had been introduced to just weeks before. A little farther over on another table, Latrell Wiggins was dominating against his fourth-grade opponent, taking most of her pieces hostage while protecting his king and queen. This was the scene during a Wednesday afternoon meeting of the school's beginner-level chess club, which is coached by William Walker ESL teacher Mike Humphreys and run through the nonprofit organization Chess for Success.

With about 50 students making up the beginning and advanced groups that meet twice-weekly in the afterschool program for third- through fifth-graders, Humphreys said the chess club is one of the more popular options to keep children entertained after the final bell rings.

'Chess is an interesting game, and the idea behind the game is to teach kids thinking skills,' he said. 'That's one of the things that is missing with kids; personally I think they watch too much TV and (play too many) video games.'

He said something he notices in the classroom is children no longer want to think for themselves and are content to wait for their teachers to give them the answers. By learning chess, he said, they are taught reasoning skills and how to think critically to come up with a solution.

'As a teacher you see that. I don't think you see enough lightbulbs going off in their heads,' he said. ' . . . I think it's been very worthwhile for the kids. I think it's really beneficial to them to learn this game.'

Trey Patton, 9, said he likes to play chess 'because it's all about battling.' His game against 8-year-old Alescia Howard was nearing an end, and though she was on the verge of defeat, Howard was still positive about the chess club experience.

'It's fun because you get to win and see who plays the winner,' she said.

Patton said he would tell his friends to join the program 'because it would be fun and would make you understand chess more.'

He said he started playing when he was 7, and he continues because 'it's a good game to play, and you get to battle and it's fun.'

Chess for Success is a nonprofit organization whose mission is 'to help children develop the skills necessary for success in school and life by learning chess.' According to a pamphlet produced by the group, this mission is accomplished by bringing chess clubs to schools as part of their after-school programs, with an adult coach paid by Chess for Success. None of the students or schools are required to contribute any money to participate, and clubs are open to all children in the school.

'It's usually pretty diverse, girls playing with boys and different cultures together. It's really interesting to see,' said Melissa Light, development director for Chess for Success.

Light said opposed to afterschool sports, which are associated with extra costs, the chess clubs are free and are therefore more accessible for all students.

'In some schools we are the only afterschool program,' she said.

Children at William Walker have a number of options for what to do as part of the afterschool program, including participating in a homework club, a Narnia group, a knitting club and sports, theater or choir. Chess for Success has been in the school for three years, with Humphreys at the helm the entire time; he said he has seen the club grow each year, starting out with 10 students the first year and now reaching five times that many.

'It's rewarding,' he said of his involvement with the club. 'It's just another extension of kids learning. I like it because it teaches the process of thinking.

'This, I think, will help the kids in the classroom.'

He said he's heard from parents of previous chess club members what a difference it has made in the life of their child, with one parent even saying the only time her child with ADD actually sat down and thought was while playing chess. Many of the participating schools have adult volunteers who help, but Humphreys doesn't have such a luxury and is forced to share his time between all the young minds. He is, however, provided training and instruction materials through Chess for Success, which donates the chess sets, leader books and books about chess to the school's library.

Other area schools featuring Chess for Success clubs include Barnes Elementary and Vose Elementary. Students at the different schools go head-to-head during tournaments throughout the year; a regional tournament for Washington County K-5 division will be hosted at William Walker on Feb. 9. Each club is allowed to bring up to 10 children at the coach's discretion (there is an entrance fee to participate), and all students will play a total of five rounds of chess.

For more information or to become a volunteer at any of the clubs, visit www.chessforsuccess.org.