Article by Eric Schlapak, M.Ed, J.D. Schlapak is a math teacher at Dover High School in New Hampshire, education consultant, writer, and certified Chess in Education Instructor.
Those in their 50s and 60s may recall that it was 50 years ago this year when Bobby Fischer became the first American to win the World Chess Championship by beating Russian Boris Spassky. It was an event that captured the attention of the United States public. In 2022, the world is in the midst of a second chess boom, after the pandemic and success of the popular Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit.
In New Hampshire, the Granite State, teachers have the opportunity to bring the many benefits of chess into their schools and classrooms. Jerry Nash is the National Chess Education Consultant for Chess in Schools, a US-based non-profit with a mission to help bring life skills and critical thinking to the classroom. Through a grant from the New Hampshire Department of Education, Nash and Chess in Schools are providing a four-day workshop, free to New Hampshire educators – The Granite Gambit.
Nash, who is also a senior advisor for the Chess in Education Commission of FIDE (the international chess federation), has had over 20 years of experience training and working with teachers in schools. He has seen first-hand the benefit of bringing chess into schools.
“Consistently those educators agree that chess fits perfectly with the goals of education to produce students who can think creatively, make good decisions under time pressure, and learn from their mistakes.”
“My hope for New Hampshire teachers is that they will discover for themselves how chess can transform their students by giving them the skills they need to be successful in and beyond the classroom. I also hope that the question is no longer, ‘Why should we have chess in our school?’ but rather, ‘Why do we not already have a chess program?”
The first rounds of Level 1 Chess in Schools training in New Hampshire occurred in October and November. Another round is scheduled to begin on January 14, with spots still available. Attendance has been full and teachers have enjoyed the class time, using the training in different ways in the classroom.
A unique aspect of the training is that even those teachers who are new to chess can return to their school with a plethora of strategies and mini-games that can help both novice students and those with experience. Simply put, you don’t need to be a grandmaster to be an effective teacher of chess in the school setting.
One teacher who had deep chess experience when he arrived for the training was Stijn Brand, the science department chair at Hopkinton High School. Brand was the 2014 New Hampshire Amateur Champion.
“When I came to the workshop, it was not for the chess content, but for ways to teach students chess and how to run a club. I got a lot of ideas from the training. It was good to see Jerry teach the ideas of the game to beginners and I will be using those strategies.”
Brand reports that Hopkinton has been getting about 14 students for the newly-formed after school chess club. He has a range of abilities there and sees the club expanding. “One of our middle-school teachers will be taking the next training so we can keep it growing.”
Clubs are one avenue for bringing chess into a school, but chess is something that can be woven into the regular curriculum. At the Hollis Primary School, Sarah Proulx is the media specialist and Penny Currier is a classroom teacher. Following the training, they began to implement chess at all grade levels at HPS. One week the teachers used story elements with a lesson on setting up the chessboard. Another week the students “read the board” using coordinates that chess players use to identify the squares, incorporating math graphing principles.
During the four days of CIS training, teachers learn and play a lot of mini-games. These are activities that help new players learn about the piece movement along with basic strategy. For a young person to learn the different moves and capturing techniques of six different pieces can be overwhelming. What makes these attractive is that they can focus on individual piece movement but still have a game-like competition. This way they can build up to a regular game of chess.
“The students are really enjoying the mini-games and learning as well. They are picking things up faster than we anticipated and excitement is building each week,” said Proulx.
On a worldwide scale, chess has taken on a boom not seen since the Fischer championship of the early 1970s. The site, chess.com, had a membership of around 30 million when the world first heard of Covid-19. As of November 2021, there were about 75 million members.
“The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges already faced by educators. How do we engage students? How do we help them deal with lost opportunities for learning? How can we help them to become better critical thinkers? The Queen’s Gambit opened a window to many who were not already familiar with chess on how the game can improve critical thinking skills and be a tool for social-emotional learning.”
Judy Preston is an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) teacher in SAU 9, the district including Conway. She travels to different schools and is thrilled to have been a part of the training. Preston visits different schools and classrooms as part of her position. Some of her students are as young as kindergarten.
“The students love chess. Many of my students are new to the US and chess has helped scaffold their learning. They are able to connect vocabulary in a setting that isn’t abstract.”