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Originally published Thursday, March 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Smart move: Idaho boosts school chess

Once a week, Deborah McCoy, a third-grade teacher in Donnelly, Idaho, unpacks chessboards and pieces and spends an hour teaching her 20...

The New York Times

Once a week, Deborah McCoy, a third-grade teacher in Donnelly, Idaho, unpacks chessboards and pieces and spends an hour teaching her 20 students how to play the game.

McCoy does not do this because she is passionate about chess; she barely knew how to play before this school year. But she began teaching it as part of an unusual pilot program in more than 100 second- and third-grade classrooms across Idaho.

Today, Idaho officials will announce in Boise that the program will be extended in the fall to all second- and third-graders, making Idaho the first state to offer a statewide chess curriculum.

The state's $1.5 billion education budget, passed two weeks ago, includes a guarantee to finance the instruction. Tom Luna, the state's superintendent of education, said participation by teachers would be voluntary, but if reaction to the pilot program is any measure, interest will be great.

There are no studies showing that teaching chess has benefits for children, but there is anecdotal evidence, Luna said.

"One of the things that we hear is that too much of what we do is based on rote memorization," Luna said. "The part I really like about this program is that kids are thinking ahead."

McCoy said she has been pleased with the results.

"So many kids spend their time plugged into video games, iPods, television, and so they are more isolated," she said. "They learn give-and-take in chess. There are courtesies that you follow. It has been really beneficial for them."

Idaho has 40,000 second- and third-graders, and Luna estimated the instruction will cost $200,000 to $250,000 a year, although it could rise to $600,000 "if everybody jumped on it the first year," he said. The money is expected to come from reducing school administrative expenses, although state officials said they had not identified where the savings would be made.

Idaho is using a curriculum called First Move, which was developed by America's Foundation for Chess, a nonprofit, Seattle-based organization that promotes teaching chess in school.

First Move differs from some other chess-in-school programs in that it is taught by classroom teachers and is intended as a curriculum enhancement for second- and third-graders. It incorporates elements of math, history and vocabulary.

Teachers who wish to use it do not need to know chess. They are trained at seminars before the school year starts and are provided with an instructional DVD, a DVD player, chess sets, boards, online resources and a manual. Every other week, an experienced player is available to answer questions.

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McCoy said her town was so remote, about a two-hour drive from Boise, that expert player Mark Morales was available only online, but she had found that was adequate.

Some of the benefits of the program, McCoy said, came in unexpected areas.

"I actually have one student who is originally from Russia and two Hispanic students who have limited English skills, and chess kind of leveled the playing field, and it kind of helped their self-esteem."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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