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Monday, March 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Got game? Foundation promotes chess as classroom learning tool

By Sanjay Bhatt
Seattle Times staff reporter

At Zion Preparatory Academy, William Wright, left, and Kolaiah Allen surprise each other with chess moves during a game in class.
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The third-grade boy in Heather Graves' class quietly sits and focuses on chess instructor Mark Morales demonstrating the strategy of "knight forks" on a hanging green-and-white chessboard.

"What do you do if you're in check?" Morales asks the Beacon Hill elementary-school class. Several kids raise their hands, but not the boy, who usually is fidgeting and disruptive during math and reading lessons.

"Run away," the boy mutters. A girl sitting next to him suggests "interpose" (a fancy word for blocking) and "capture." Later, the students split into pairs to play chess. They shake hands after one defeats the other.

"The cool thing is there can be language and cultural barriers, but two kids can sit down and play chess together," Morales says as he watches the games.

Interest in chess education in schools is growing as a way to build community across ethnic and class lines, raise the academic achievement of low-performing students, and offer families a social way to bond outside of school.

Grants for schools

For more information on grants to schools, contact America's Foundation for Chess at 206-675-0490 or send e-mail to
Officials with the Seattle-based America's Foundation for Chess, which has provided in-class chess instruction at 15 elementary schools in Western Washington, say the foundation aims to branch out to California in 2005 and eventually become the nation's largest supporter of in-class chess education. Its target market is 9.2 million second- and third-graders in regular education programs nationwide.

With more than $500,000 in assets, the foundation is a major player on the nation's chess scene. In December it will sponsor the U.S. Chess Championship for the fourth year, this time in San Diego after a three-year run in Seattle.

This week, the foundation is calling for applications from schools seeking in-class chess instruction and teacher training. The foundation wants to make awards to at least seven schools, and each school can get up to $22,000, said Rourke O'Brien, the foundation's new executive director.

"Our mission is to strengthen the minds and character of our youth by advancing chess in our schools and culture," O'Brien said.

Yasser Seirawan, an international grandmaster in Seattle and a Garfield High School graduate, is on the group's advisory board.

Girls tend to stop playing chess after third grade, and the foundation wants to encourage more girls to stay in the game. On a recent day, Morales asked Graves' class to give another word for trading one chess piece for a higher-value piece.

"Sacrifice," says one student. Morales asks for another word. The kids are stumped.

"What's the word when your mom buys something at the store, it doesn't fit, and she goes back to get another?" Morales hints.

"Oh! Oh!" says an excited girl, her arm bouncing up and down. She says with a knowing beam on her face, "Exchange."

The Seattle foundation, formed in 2000, models its strategy after Chess-in-the-Schools, a nonprofit that partners with elementary and junior-high schools in poor neighborhoods of New York City. According to the New York group, research indicates students who receive chess instruction make statistically significant gains in reading on a national standardized test — more so than students not learning chess — and the gains are especially high for those behind their grade level.

Chess-in-the-Schools, started about 15 years ago, reported $7 million in assets in 2002. The New Jersey-based Kasparov Chess Foundation, with $2 million in assets in 2002, also partners with school districts to offer in-class chess instruction.

O'Brien notes that nearly 30 nations formally integrate chess into their school curricula because of its impact on critical-thinking skills. The U.S. does not, but chess advocates hope to change that.

One of the first schools to win a grant from America's Foundation for Chess was Zion Preparatory Academy, a private school in Seattle's Columbia City neighborhood that has taught students chess in class for seven years. Principal Victoria Romero said she loves the program because the foundation's instructors teach chess in a class over the course of a year, giving the teacher a chance to see how the game should be taught at a particular grade level. The foundation also supplied the Afrocentric, Christian academy with all of the chess sets and teaching aids it needed.

Chess gives Romero's students an engaging way to practice self-discipline, focus on a problem, use spatial reasoning, understand what it means to plan ahead, deal with their anger and learn chess' algebraic notation, she said.

In January, the academy sponsored a chess tournament in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. About 350 youths came to play, including children from Mercer Island.

"Parents were willing to bring their kids across the bridge to compete in chess," Romero said. "The playing ground was leveled, and it was all about who was good on the board."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or


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