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Jewish World Review April 23, 2001 / 30 Nissan, 5761

Jessica Wehrman

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Consumer Reports

Teaching chess in schools -- IT'S spring break in Northern Virginia, and rather than relaxing on a beach, a classroom full of elementary students is locked in battle.

Murmuring softly as they push chess pieces across more than a dozen boards, the children are quiet. The hush is broken by an impish, freckled boy, who pushes a piece forward, eyes his opponent and howls, "you're stuffed - ha!" He swings his arms around in a mini-victory dance.

Once an extracurricular activity for the most cerebral students, chess is increasingly used to help teach kids analytic and problem-solving skills that could improve performance in key subjects.

The U.S. Chess Center of Washington D.C. teaches regular classes in the District and its suburbs. New Jersey has a state law recommending second graders be taught the game. In New York City's public school system, the non-profit Chess-in-the-Schools program has taught chess to 36,000 students in 160 schools since 1986. And a Canadian math textbook includes chess moves as part of its lessons - linking the analytical aspects of math and the analytical demands of the game.

Enthusiasm for chess doesn't end in elementary school. The University of Maryland in Baltimore County and the University of Texas at Dallas both offer chess scholarships to promising young players.

"There's an enormous body of literature saying it really works," said New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who has introduced a bill annually since 1992 encouraging schools to teach chess. "It gets great results no matter what the other strengths and weaknesses of the school systems may be."

David Mehler, executive director of the U.S. Chess Center, said not only is chess an ideal incentive and reward for kids, it gets them interested in the intellectual process.

Chess, he said, teaches kids to solve problems and to win and lose gracefully.

Douglas Goralski, who also teaches chess for the chess center, remembers a scatter-brained fifth grader who discovered she could win. The discovery, he said, changed her attitude. She began to take academics and herself more seriously.

"There are kids here who are better than I am," he said, motioning to the games in progress behind him.

Tom Brownscombe, scholastic director for the U.S. Chess Federation, said study after study has proved that chess gives students analytic thinking skills.

His favorite is a 1984 study where students were allowed to participate in one of many extracurricular activities, then tested to determine how much it ultimately affected their test scores. The scientist expected the computer-assisted learning program would benefit students the most. Instead, the chess program was the most beneficial.

"Every single chess position is a problem that must be solved," he said. "You can't play chess without developing problem solving."

Patty Meade, a sixth grade teacher at Haycock Elementary School in Fairfax County, Va., started teaching her students chess 10 years ago, after a student taught her the game. Now her classes teach first graders in addition to playing their own games.

"So much of what kids learn in elementary school is memorizing, fractions, this and that," she said. "Chess is not that way. You have to figure it out and there's just not one right answer."

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