A few years ago, elementary students didn’t start class until 9:15 a.m. So Ben Kriegmont, a fourth grade teacher at Gastineau Elementary School, began allowing students into his room to play chess before the first bell.
Even though the school’s start times have shifted, Kriegmont has kept the chess players together by starting an after-school chess club.
“All kinds of brain research shows chess is good for helping reading, critical thinking and planning,” Kriegmont said, “and there’s great benefit in playing face-to-face with actual pieces and people rather than kids just playing video games.”
The program runs an hour from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Kindergartners through second-grade students go on Wednesday for Pawns, and the third through fifth-graders go to Knights on Thursdays.
“The social aspect of the club is probably the best thing,” Kriegmont said.
Younger children spend their club time learning the basics of the game, such as how different pieces move and what the rules are. The older students focus their time on learning strategies for winning, and all members of the club are instructed how to be good sports while playing.
“This is a game they can play forever,” Kriegmont said. “Now when they’re young, but also when they get older, as well.”
Regardless of age, the curious looks of befuddlement at choosing the next move and the smirks from realizing a player made a good move filled the room when the games began.
“I like the strategy and thinking about what piece you’re going to move next,” said Annika Schwartz, a fourth-grade chess club member.
Thursday was the first time in chess club for Schwartz and her third-grade sister, Minta, but the girls have been playing chess for a couple years after getting an instructional chess set as a Christmas gift.
“It goes on for a long time, and you can always learn new stuff,” Minta Schwartz said.
The younger students played a game Wednesday called “Pawn Wars” where only the pawns are placed on the board and the object is to get one pawn across to the other side. At the end of the lesson, all 18 students raised their hands when asked if they knew how pawns worked in chess.
End-game puzzles where students picked the correct move to force a “check-mate” were the first games the Knights group played before moving on to regular chess games. In time, they will learn things like attack strategy and castling, Kriegmont said.
While learning the game and how to win are two of the group’s main goals, the focus of chess club is on the students having a good time, Kriegmont said.
And his students seem to understand that.
“We’re just playing for the fun,” Annika Schwartz said.
She did add that she has extra motivation for joining chess club.
“I’m probably going to beat (dad) after chess club,” she said. “He’s really good though.”