Checking in on the mates at the Oakwood Elementary chess clubMar 30, 2023 02:33PM ● By Heather Lawrence
“This year we have 103 registered members of the chess club, in kindergarten through fifth grade,” said Oakwood volunteer chess organizer Janice Worley. (Janice Worley)
When the dismissal bell rings on Thursday afternoons, 90 kids at Oakwood Elementary head to the cafeteria. Three things are on their minds: eat their snacks, find their partner for the day and check the “one move to checkmate” challenge board. These kids are here to learn chess.
“The chess club started 27 years ago, and I’ve been running it for seven years. It’s a big success, but it takes volunteers to make it happen,” said Janice Worley.
Worley runs the club along with her daughter Makenna and several adult volunteers, mostly other parents.
“There are so many benefits to playing chess. One is they learn to win and lose graciously. That’s an important part of playing with young kids. Another is learning analytical skills to beat your opponent,” Worley said.
Sisters Anastasia and Katarina, who are in fourth and second grades, come to chess club together. “This is my first year in the club. Sometimes I play with my family at home. When I win, I brag!” Katarina said, laughing.
Anastasia said she is “getting pretty good” at chess. “I like to be black because I feel like it’s easier to win. I can watch what the other person is doing. Now that I know all the names of the pieces, I learn strategies like pawn promotion. When I win I say a little ‘yes!’”
Parent volunteer Adrienne Cornia has a third grader and fifth grader in the chess club. She said her kids are learning not only chess, but to be good winners and losers.
“I like the way Janice promotes good sportsmanship. She has players shake hands before and after their matches. It’s a great program,” Cornia said.
Worley’s approach to meetings is organized. “I get here early with other volunteers and set up 55 vinyl roll-up chess board mats, just like in a professional club. Kids learn correct notation because the sides are labeled with numbers and letters,” Worley said.
Kids spend the first few minutes snacking and socializing, and then many of them try the weekly challenge.
“Every week we put up a ‘one move to checkmate’ challenge. It’s a board on the wall with a mid-game scenario. Kids study it and write down in notation how they would get to checkmate. Two winners are drawn for prizes. They love it,” Worley said.
An instructor goes up to the board and explains the answer, then they break into smaller skill level groups.
“They’ll get a lesson that’s appropriate for their level. Beginners learn piece names and how they move. More advanced kids learn strategy. Then we all come back to the cafeteria to play,” Worley said.
In weekly matches, students are assigned a partner based on a skills algorithm of their previous wins and losses. Worley said assigning different partners each week keeps them focused. They also aren’t assigned the same partner within a three week time span.
At the end of the matches, kids report the outcome to Worley. She spends the next few hours at home updating results. She also shops for the challenge prizes, snacks and raffle prizes.
“I spend a lot of time on it, even though I don’t have kids at the school anymore. My kids benefited from it, so I’m kind of paying it forward. Or backward. But it’s worth it—at any given time I can walk into that school and I’m instantly surrounded by kids who want to talk to me.”
Teaching kindergartners how to play chess is a study in patience. “Because we have so many kids, it takes volunteers to teach them how to play. Each group has an adult instructor and a ‘quiet keeper.’
“The beginners play against someone who is just as ill-informed as they are. Adults remind them, ‘this is how the rook moves. No, you can’t change direction in the middle of a move,’” Worley said.
There are also special events throughout the year. In December Worley held a meeting where parents were invited. They had a raffle with prizes and a presentation on why chess is good for kids. Worley also made a slideshow of pictures from their meetings.
In 2023 they’ll have a six-week-long spring tournament within the club, complete with division winners and trophies. They’ll also do a tag team event where it’s two against two, and “simuls” where they have to focus on playing five games at once against instructors.
“The club is so popular that we get a lot of elementary ‘alumni’ who want to come back and still be a part of it. We use them as volunteers who can jump in and help, or participate in the bigger events,” Worley said.
Worley said she hopes the club continues. She’s a big believer in the benefits, including how kids learn to use their brains and practice analytical skills to outsmart their opponent.
The future of the chess club is not only dependent on volunteer help—Worley anticipates some reorganization when students from Spring Lane combine with Oakwood next fall.
“I don’t know how it will work. We might limit the age groups, but still grandfather in the kids who are already in it,” Worley said.
Whatever organizing happens behind the scenes doesn’t matter to kids like first grader Beckham, who joined the club this year. He just knows he likes coming to chess club and he’s having fun.
“At home I play with my dad, stepmom or friends. I like to be white because white gets to go first, and then I can probably win,” Beckham said. “I’m getting really good now.”