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US Schools Recognize Benefits of Chess


Studies worldwide have shown playing chess has benefits, especially for young children. Inspired by this knowledge, a growing number of teachers in the U.S. are trying to incorporate chess into their students' lives. VOA correspondent Julie Taboh has more.

Frankie Roth used to be a troubled child. Georgia Clark, the principal at his Maryland school, remembers when she first met him.

"My first impression of Frankie was, we've got to do something for him. He is not going to make it," Clark says. "He was in third grade and having a very difficult time with every adult that he met."

Clark decided to enroll Frankie in her after-school chess program. She saw a dramatic change in just a few months.

"...When he finally found that he could be successful in chess club, then he just began to blossom," she says. "And I've just seen a great difference in him in the last two years."

About 30 countries, including Russia, value chess so much that it's included in school curriculums. Two of the most famous chess champions, Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, are Russian. The United States has lagged behind.

Now, an increasing number of public schools in the U.S. are offering chess in after-school programs.

Jim Fite is the creator and coach of the chess club at North East Elementary School. He says experts agree about the benefits of chess on children's brains, even starting at age 2.

"They all say, without a doubt, that chess helps children develop intellectually," he says. "It helps them in their mathematical skills. It helps them in their reading skills.

"The whole idea is that you have a few pieces and a little board, and some shelter… and you're engaged in a tremendous activity…"

Several players at North East Elementary School seemed to like the game less for the intellectual benefits than for the boost in self-confidence.

"When I win, I feel happy that I won against another person, especially if that person is really good at chess," says a boy in the chess club.

"You move pieces, and you get to, like, kill people, like Queens and stuff," says one girl.

"It feels pretty good to play chess 'cause you can beat people," says another boy.

Students in Maryland can also play in tournaments and gain points toward a greater goal. Two full scholarships to the University of Maryland Baltimore County are awarded each year to the players with the most points.

"I tell these kids, 'It's a lot easier for you to go to college on chess than it is on football, 'cause you look at how many other kids are playing football, and they're all crashing into each other. All you're doing is sitting there moving a few pieces,'" he says.

Shinsaku Uesugi is a high school student in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. At age 13, he was awarded one of those scholarships.

Uesugi says children should keep playing chess, whether they win a scholarship or not.

"I would advise them to just play with their friends and have fun. Because if you don't have fun, why would you play?" he asks.

For Roth, chess has helped his self-esteem. His teachers report that he was once a stutterer, but he recently has stopped.

"I think it's helped me with maybe teaching me how to be patient and, like, how to think ahead of time," Roth says.

"I just enjoy the playing, but when I win, it feels pretty good, too."

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