On Thursday afternoons, after children have spilled out of their last classes, the Third Grade Courtyard becomes a minefield of chess boards. Chess Club members from lower and middle school spread out on benches, soaking up the sun as they set up their pieces. Games afoot, spectators hover over engrossed players, offering counsel on their next moves. Occasionally, you can hear a groan or a whoop of delight as a king is trapped with no means of escape. “Checkmate!”
There were eight participants when the Graded lower and middle school chess club was founded last semester by Lower School Portuguese Teacher Luciana Castro. This semester, that number has swelled to 29. “I was surprised by how many students signed up for chess,” Ms. Castro admits. “And I thought many of those students would eventually drop out of the club.” But they didn’t, and the club is still very popular.
The club's success is perhaps due to the intellectual rigor of the game. Lucius Provase, a middle school Portuguese teacher who runs the club with Ms. Castro, explains that “even the most energetic students are intensely focused when they play.” During a game, students must practice strategic thinking, planning, patience, and anticipation, and the challenge of simultaneously employing all those skills proves engaging.
“The outcome of each match has nothing to do with luck,” explains fourth-grader Gabriel M. “Instead, it’s about strategy. Whoever has the best strategy wins, and I really like that.”
Gabriel's classmate Henrique D. adds that “you really have to use your mind and consider all the possibilities.” Using one's mind includes being aware of your own thought processes to plan, monitor, and evaluate a strategy and adapt it accordingly.
Lower School STEM Teacher Pedro Andrade also helps run the club. He attributes the club’s success to chess's inherent difficulty and the allure of a game that is constantly changing. “Chess is a great way for students to utilize their creativity and logic while spending time with their friends," he asserts. "The game is extremely rewarding for the students and makes them feel great pride.”
Ms. Castro’s grandfather taught her to play chess when she was just five years old. Many of the club participants learned the game under similar circumstances. “Students tend to develop an interest in chess when they have a family member who enjoys it. It’s usually a parent or grandparent who is eager to play with them, so chess becomes something of a family tradition.”
Dany N., in grade 3, is one of those students. “My dad started playing when he was 18, and he participated in some tournaments and even won some trophies,” Dany shares proudly. “He taught me how to play, and we still play together at least three times a week. Sometimes my sister plays, too.”
Chess Club leaders are pleased with the student engagement but would like to see more girls involved in the activity. Worldwide, chess is a male-dominated field, and only about 15% of internationally-rated players are female. Despite still representing a small proportion of the chess community, women are gaining visibility. Representation in the media, a greater number of female role models, and rising encouragement of their participation have allowed women to explore the game of chess in more significant numbers and with more confidence. Second-grader Emily L., one of the girls who attend club meetings, thinks chess is “a great game that keeps your brain moving and that even gives you more energy.” According to her, “More girls should definitely join!”
Ms. Castro, Mr. Provase, and Mr. Andrade are enthusiastic about where the club is heading. They are eager to organize chess tournaments within the school and hope to encourage participants to sign up for external competitions, too. Fourth-grader Mark T. is excited about those possibilities. “Tournaments are a lot of fun,” he exclaims. “You can make new friends and win great prizes. And sometimes the games have to be very quick because you have to use a clock. It’s a very different experience.” That kind of environment allows players to test their skills and strategies and can significantly improve their game.
Chess is a complex game that exercises players’ strategy, foresight, and patience—all of which are useful in any area of life. It’s also an enjoyable pastime for people of all ages. It seems likely that chess will remain a popular activity at Graded—for both boys and girls—for many years to come!