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Young mental athletes prove chessboard skill at Duniway

by: David F. Ashton, These young chess-masters don’t wiggle or squirm while their game is in play – they appear to be completely focused on the chessboard.

In the gymnasium at Duniway Elementary School, 80 kids were sitting at tables and playing games on a Saturday morning. But this cavernous room wasn't ringing with playful outbursts or giggles; there was no whirl of youthful exuberance.

Instead, forty pairs of young people were sitting across from one another at tables on March 1st, nearly motionless, gazing at a chessboard.

Just outside the gym's doorway, Julie Young, Executive Director for 'Chess for Success', whispered to us in the hushed tones of a TV golfing commentator, 'We're holding our regional tournaments today.'

In the hallway, Young explained that this event was one of 25 regional tournaments being put on by the organization. 'Kids are competing for titles within their age category. The winners will go on to the final playoffs.'

'Chess for Success' was formed in 1992 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to setting up chess clubs in low-income Portland schools, Young told us. It now support chess clubs in 73 Title I schools.

'This tournament has a 41-year history,' said Young. 'It started at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). By 1998, it grew until it became too large for a volunteer organization to run. 'Chess for Success' began to provide the logistics and administrative support, but the tournaments are still staffed by many of those volunteers who started the event.'

On the grade school level, Young continued, volunteers and staff of 'Chess for Success' teach more than just how move figurines around on a checked board.

'These chess clubs are important, because they bring together children from all different backgrounds to play with one another. Beyond that, when children learn how to play chess, they learn how to sit still, concentrate, and think ahead.'And, kids also learn personal responsibility, added Young. 'They get the credit for their successes. And, they can't blame their losses on their family's situation - or even on what they had for breakfast. The 'field is level' for every child. Winning at chess doesn't take any special physical or mental skill - it takes concentration, and a will to succeed.'

The program goes far beyond developing young chess mavens, Young continued. 'As soon as a child joins the chess club, other students - and even some teachers - often think, 'my gosh, they're brilliant'. It really increases their self-esteem when they get good at playing chess.

'Whether they achieve mastery of chess or not, kids who learn to play tend to do better in school. As they improve at the game, many of them start taking their studies more seriously.

'We're not really interested in creating chess masters in our after-school program. Our goal is to teach children skills that will carry forward in life.'

In schools in which it is supported, Chess for Success is open to all children in the school, without cost. 'Fortunately, we have strong support from parents, teachers, public school districts, and the community.'

You can learn more by going online and visiting: www.chessforsuccess.org.