In most fields of school competition, it’s the rambunctious athletic students who bask in the limelight of their achievements.

But, at several Inner Southeast Portland elementary and middle schools, “mental athletes” are winning the praise and honors for their ability to play the game of chess.

At the 2013 Chess for Success State Chess Tournament, held Oregon Convention Center on March 15, organizers pointed out team members from Woodstock Elementary and Hosford Middle schools – deep in concentration at their chessboards.

by: DAVID F. ASHTON - With boards set on long rows of tables, local chess club members take on top players representing schools from 19 school districts in eight counties, in two states and in two time zones 2013 Chess for Success State Chess Tournament.One of the many watching from the gallery was Portland Public Schools Superintendant Carole Smith. “I’m literally between meetings – I just had to pop in here to watch some of our schools’ teams competing. I’m particularly watching the younger kids – I love it!”

Chess for Success activities help kids “really improve how they think,” remarked Smith. “It’s really good that we have a lot of kids engaged at this, starting at a really young age.”

“The Chess for Success program is for all students – from public schools, private schools, and for home-schooled children,” revealed the organization’s Executive Director, Julie Young.

To get to the State Championship, some 1,400 students competed in regional tournaments in January and February, Young explained. “Those winners advanced to the finals – and we have more than 600 kids playing chess here today and tomorrow.”

The Chess for Success nonprofit organization was started by three fathers who saw that kids who learned chess-playing skills also did better in school. Chess for Success started in 1992 as a pilot program in nine of Portland’s neediest schools. “The school district’s research showed that participating in after-school chess clubs helped improve the children’s reading and math scores, their self-esteem, and their behavior,” Young said.

Specifically, the chess-playing students learn:

· To think ahead;

· That there are consequences for actions;

· How to accept responsibility for the moves they make;

· How, the longer you study a problem, the better chance you have for a good solution; and,

· That ability and concentration are what win games, not luck.

In its unique model, Chess for Success raises money to pay schoolteachers to run the program.

Its simple, Young said. Teachers know how to teach. Our average club size is 40 kids; but Woodstock Elementary has 140 kids participating! Teachers are good at getting kids to sit down, listen, and concentrate. Our lesson plans help them teach the game.

Benjamin Kleier, a seventh-grader at Inner Southeasts St. Ignatius Catholic School on Powell Boulevard, plays on the Hosford Middle School team.

I play chess when I dont have soccer season, Kleier told THE BEE after winning a match. “It’s fun. It feels like I’m really smart when I’m playing.”

Team members representing the large program at Woodstock Elementary seriously concentrated while playing – and winning – their games. But afterward, they reverted to being energetic, giggly kids.

Even though Chess for Success runs regional and state championship competitions, “We’re not ‘in it for winning it’. We are more interested in the students learning life skills,” Young said.

It appears that this Portland nonprofit has found a winning formula for helping students mature into adults who can positively contribute to society.

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