Chess grows in popularity with students across the St. Louis area
By: Carol Enright
As they dropped their backpacks and headed into the classroom to find an early morning chess game, it’s safe to surmise that students at Carman Trails Elementary School in the Parkway School District might never have heard of Bobby Fischer, widely hailed as the greatest chess player of all time. Still, they came to school an hour early to play a game many consider too complex for kids.
“It’s fun,” said fourth-grader, Aidan Scharf, who has tried to teach it to his parents.
“They didn’t know how to move a horse,” he said.
ESOL teacher, Kathryn Auclair-Glascock, helps run the chess club at Carman Trails. She said many students, like Aidan, want to teach their parents to play chess and that this experience is good for kids.
“It definitely helps them with their logical thinking and, equally as important, it really improves their self-confidence overall – because they know to play chess, which a lot of adults see as a difficult thing,” said Auclair-Glascock.
With more than 80 participants, Carman Trails might have one of the largest school chess clubs in the area, but it’s certainly not the only one. According to the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, school programs are on the rise.
“Our scholastic program’s been growing by leaps and bounds over the past couple of years,” said Mike Wilmering of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. “In the 2011-2012 school year, we brought chess programming to about 3,600 students in more than 100 different classrooms and community centers across the St. Louis area.”
Parkway has chess clubs at all 18 of its elementary schools. Some are run through the district’s community education program. Others, like the one at Carman Trails, are run by volunteer teachers and parents.
The Rockwood School District has community-education sponsored chess programs at 14 of its elementary schools. Both districts have clubs at the middle and high school levels, too. And, Alex Vergilesov, scholastics coordinator at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, said every local college has some sort of chess club or team.
Webster University has one of the top collegiate programs in the country, Lindenwood University offers up to 30 chess scholarships, and Maryville University recently started a chess club.
The growth in school chess programs locally reflects the rising popularity of chess nationwide. According to a 2012 survey commissioned by AGON, the company that was recently accorded the commercial rights to the World Chess Championships by the World Chess Federation, 35 million Americans are playing chess regularly.
Despite its popularity, the perception remains that this “Game of Kings” is only for the stratospherically smart.
“That is one of our biggest enemies,” said Vergilesov, noting anyone can learn chess.
“The proof is that we teach kids as young as 5 or 6 how to play chess,” he added.
By all accounts, those kids are reaping a boatload of benefits.
“Chess teaches problem solving skills, critical thinking, spatial awareness, goal setting, sportsmanship, planning – all sorts of really great benefits for developing students,” said Wilmering. “And it’s a game. It’s fun. It’s sort of like sneaking veggies into their ice cream.”
Vergilesov said his favorite cognitive benefit is forward thinking, as chess requires players to think several moves ahead.
“That’s a life skill that we can teach kids and they can apply to different areas as they grow up,” he said. “It’s important to think ahead.”