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King makers

Young players flock to chess at a time when its academic benefits draw notice

These kids are comfortable with the ways of royalty. They consort regularly with kings, and spend many of their waking hours plotting the movements of queens. The jagged motions of knights are second nature to them.

To the pint-sized players at this chess camp in suburban Scarsdale, N.Y., this is child's play - the kind they could enjoy all summer long.

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Although some campers are as young as five, many provide stiff challenges to expert-level instructors Michael Amori and Michael McDermott. Mr. Amori smiles wryly as he laments, "The motto around here is: You haven't lived until you've been beaten by a six-year-old."

Clearly, plenty of kids would prefer to spend the summer months swinging a bat or diving into a lake. But to a growing number of American children -and not just those uncharitably known as the geek set -the ideal break from school includes serious time spent at a chess board.

"Over the last five years we've seen a 700 percent increase in the number of members under 18 in our organization," says Beatriz Marinello, scholastic director of the US Chess Federation in New Windsor, N.Y. She estimates that young members of the USCF now number 40,000 out of more than 85,000 total. "And while there were only four or five chess camps in the entire country 10 years ago, there are now four or five in each state."

Easy access to both instruction and partners on the Internet explains part of the explosion. But perhaps even more significant is the greater awareness of parents and teachers of the potential of chess to boost everything from concentration to academic performance.

"Chess is perhaps the world's best-kept secret in terms of how to improve a kid academically and provide a lifelong pursuit," says Aremin Hacobian, executive director of the International Academy of Chess in Boston.

And childhood is the time to begin, he insists. "The capacity of kids to learn this game far exceeds that of an adult," he says. "It's like learning a foreign language. A five- or six-year-old kid is open to anything, far more willing to absorb the endless possibilities that the world affords."

The academic benefits of the game appear to be extensive. Although testing done so far has been limited, there are a number of studies which support the contention that exposure to chess enhances memory, boosts spatial and numerical skills, increases problem-solving capabilities, and strengthens logical thinking.

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Several school districts across the country are beginning to incorporate chess into the standard curriculum. In New York, a handful of suburban schools are now making chess compulsory in some elementary school grades. And less affluent school districts are also discovering that chess makes an excellent low-budget contribution to learning, in that it requires little equipment and no facilities beyond tables and chairs.

Of course, for most of the eight boys currently attending the Scarsdale branch of the National Scholastic Chess Foundation chess camps, chess is not seen as a learning aid but rather as a passion. These kids are not just casual enthusiasts but instead sophisticated players who can hold their own in complex discussions of game analysis.

(There are no girls at this session of the camp. It occasionally gets girls, Amori explains, but they are few, constituting only about 10 percent of total enrollment. "The ones who come are really good but there aren't many," he says. He's hard-pressed to understand the gender gap but guesses, "Maybe because it's an aggressive, warlike game.")

Perhaps the best player at this session of the camp is Nicholas Weisberger, a six-year-old with delicate features and blond curls who sometimes kneels in his chair in order to reach the chess board.

"He'll probably be a national master," predicts Mr. McDermott, after a challenging game with the young champion who's currently ranked top among the nation's kindergartners.

Not just for the elite

But it's not just exceptional children like Nicholas who ought to learn the game, insist many of its advocates.

"We are trying to move chess away from an elitist image," says Sunil Weeramantry, executive director of the NSCF headquartered in White Plains, N.Y. "People used to just put chess for children into gifted programs. But it's not just for kids who are already smart."

On the contrary, he says, chess is a great leveler, and often children in underachieving schools make excellent chess players.

Mr. Weeramantry says he has worked with some chess teams from schools in poor neighborhoods in the South Bronx, and "they often beat the daylights" out of teams from more affluent schools.

None of that, of course, is much on the mind of the boys at the Scarsdale camp. They're too busy thinking strategy.

"Chess at school isn't challenging enough," complains fourth-grader Jonathan Silverman. "I come here because it's more competitive." Jonathan says he also loves baseball, basketball, and tennis. In fact, he admits, baseball takes precedence over chess. But chess camp, he hastens to add, is "really good."

The boys start the morning with a quick series of timed warm-up games. Then they move to another room for a chess lecture. Amori re-enacts for them a game played in 1964 between chess masters Mikahil Tal and Geza Tringov, providing analysis as he goes. The boys watch wide-eyed, as if viewing an action film.

When Amori finishes he divides the kids into two teams and asks them to re-create the game and all its moves from memory. With only one mistake, the boys quickly repeat each step.

Added bonus: life skills

One of the exciting things about the process, Amori explains, is the life skills these kids are picking up. He says analyzing game situations teaches children better decisionmaking skills and helps to make them more aware of the consequences of their actions. It also strengthens their ability to think about long-term gains instead of just immediate gratification, and even tempers tendencies toward greed, he insists.

"It's not just about grabbing pieces off the board," he says. "You need to learn to see beyond that."

After the chess lecture the boys break for lunch and then sports. Some days, Amori says, the campers are so keen to play chess that it's hard to persuade them to become interested in sports. But today they willingly divide into kickball teams and seem to enjoy the game, although at one point the third-baseman is caught sneaking a look into a chess book.

"Some of these kids would rather play chess than eat," says Amori.

Amori himself was a trader on the New York Stock Exchange until a few years ago when he became a professional chess teacher. He now works in several schools in addition to offering private tutoring for children.

He notes that chess is no longer the preserve of the brainy social outcast. Many of his students are kids very much in the mainstream and are often outstanding athletes as well.

In an affluent town like Scarsdale, he says, "Chess has become chic." He is sorry to note, however, some elements of the kind of parental overdrive characterized in the popular film "Searching for Bobby Fischer" at work in families today. He's seeing some parents who push the game on their children as a tool to boost test scores. "I hate getting a student who's counting the minutes till our hour is up," he says of his private tutoring sessions.

There's little danger of that, however, at the Scarsdale camp. As the afternoon draws to a close and the kids wait for their parents to pick them up, Nicholas and 11-year-old Patrick Mathieson are indulging in a few more rapid-fire games.

When asked if they ever tire of playing chess, both emphatically shake their heads no.

"That wouldn't even be possible," Patrick says.

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Chess resources

One reason for the growing popularity of chess among the young is the game's increasing online accessibility. Lessons are taught, games are played, and chess friendships can easily be formed through the Internet. Here are some helpful Web sites for those interested in going online to learn more about the world of chess:

* This is an extremely useful site for young learners. It includes a series of free online courses for players at different levels, a listing of tournament results, and a national index of coaches.

* This is the Web site of the US Chess Federation. It features chess tips and also offers a number of links to other helpful sites. These include state affliliates, chess clubs and associations, and chess camps.

* The site of the National Scholastic Chess Foundation, this site provides tournament information and a feature called Coaches' Corner which offers some game analysis and commentary.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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