The Super Bowl of Elementary School Chess

Two thousand high-achieving students. Hordes of proud parents, anxious coaches, and one scrappy underdog team from Harlem. Screaming. Crying. Chess.

A chess game often hinges on a single move. Advancing a pawn too early, choosing the wrong square for a knight: these are errors that lose games. Right now, in the seventh and final round of the U.S. Chess Federation National Elementary Championship in Nashville, Jason Zabre, a lanky sixth-grader from Harlem, faces a critical test. Taking an aggressive line, he has already sent a knight and queen onto his opponent’s half of the board. He is in the thick of the “middle game,” a freestyle phase characterized by tactical maneuvering and positional jockeying, which comes on the heels of a rehearsed sequence of moves called the opening.

He carefully studies the board inside the gigantic main ballroom of the Gaylord Opryland Convention Center, among more than 2,000 students from across the country, ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade. Minutes tick by, but time is not the enemy here; Jason has more than an hour left on his game clock. The enemy is his own impulse. Self-control is perhaps the most important trait in chess.

While Jason searches for an answer to the complex puzzle in front of him, I anxiously wait in a conference room down the hall from the action. I’m his assistant coach. Head coach Ryan Goldenberg, a twenty-six-year-old USCF-certified “Life Master,” sits beside me twirling a pawn between his thumb and forefinger, trying to mask his disappointment. Three players who each needed to win their last game have all returned in defeat. Jason, a rookie on the team, represents our last chance to salvage a respectable finish.

After several minutes, he finally sees the move –– it’s called a fork, or double attack. Using his queen, he can threaten checkmate and attack an unprotected bishop at the same time. He scribbles down the move, Qf3, on his notation pad, slides his queen across the board, and confidently hits the clock.

* * *

In the months leading up to Nationals, the thirteen chess team members at Success Academy Harlem North West kicked their training into high gear. In addition to regular chess classes, they played for an hour each morning in Goldenberg’s elective, spent two hours practicing every Wednesday at after-school chess club and competed nearly every Saturday in Success Academy-hosted training camps or city-wide tournaments. Some played regularly at the Marshall Chess Club in Greenwich Village, a famous haunt frequented by the world’s top players.

“I’d say I spend maybe thirty hours a week on chess,” says sixth-grader Ethan Moses, the animated team captain. “My mom paid like $99 for me to have a diamond membership. She told me, when I go to Nationals, I better make her money count.”

Like all students at Success Academy Charter Schools, the largest charter network in the city, Ethan and his teammates learned chess basics in kindergarten –– bishops move diagonally, knights move in an L-shape, the queen is valuable, shake hands good luck, shake hands good game. Instruction got more advanced with age. This past year, Goldenberg taught the students common checkmating patterns (helper mate, smother mate, Arabian mate, in-your-face mate, back rank mate) and tactical maneuvers (forks, pins, skewers, X-rays). We created lessons and worksheets that developed students’ pattern recognition, and eventually they were able to spot the patterns in their own games. It was relatively straightforward training. The difficulty came in teaching the more abstract chess concepts, such as when it makes sense to trade a knight for a bishop. For those more nuanced skills, there is no clear procedure to follow. Students have to calculate piece positioning four or five moves ahead for multiple variations. In other words, they have to do something they don’t like to do: be patient and think.

At chess club a few weeks before Nationals, Goldenberg showed the group a game played by our top-ranked player, Trevhon Cox, a skinny sixth-grader who says he’s not himself when he goes more than a day without chess.

“Raise your hand if you’ve found the best move for black in this position,” said Goldenberg, standing in front of the Smartboard wearing a navy dress shirt and loose red necktie.

Only three hands went up in the room of about twenty-five students.

“Okay, take more time,” he said, punching a hand timer. Two minutes passed. “Who’s got it now?”

Several more tentative hands rose, but Goldenberg wasn’t satisfied. “Keep thinking,” he said. After a total of five minutes, the majority of the room seemed to have found the solution, a subtle rook maneuver that added pressure to the opponent’s kingside.

“So tell me, how much time should we take when we get to a difficult position like this?” Goldenberg asked the group.

“Five minutes?” one kid offered. Goldenberg said no.

He called on Eliana Asiedu, a sixth-grader sitting in the front row. “As much time as we need?”

“As. Much. Time. As. We. Need,” he repeated.

Though we said it often, our students rarely followed the old chess adage: When you think you see a good move, look for a better one.

I’m a good chess player, but I’m closer to the kids’ levels than to Goldenberg’s. Ethan, Trevhon and other top players occasionally beat me in casual blitz (speed chess) games, but I always win when we play without a time limit. The difference is not in our chess knowledge or tactical ability, but rather our playing habits. I control my impulses better than they do; I make better moves.

Grandmaster Maxim Dlugy flexes his muscles in between Success Academy coaches Ryan Goldenberg (left) and Jonathan Gottehrer (right).<span class="_Credit">(Photo courtesy Tom Perna)</span>
Grandmaster Maxim Dlugy flexes his muscles in between Success Academy coaches Ryan Goldenberg (left) and Jonathan Gottehrer (right).(Photo courtesy Tom Perna)

Emotional regulation is a critical component of chess education, says Sean O’Hanlon, Success Academy’s chess director. O’Hanlon, forty, who earned an M.F.A. in poetry and meditates each morning, considers himself an educator more than a chess player.

“Chess is the perfect subject to teach in schools,” he says with a traceable Staten Island accent. “It is the special that relates most to academics. Chess teaches kids to think critically and objectively, to check their answers and to look for alternative solutions. Those skills are useful in every subject.”

Before I started teaching chess last fall, I taught the core elementary subjects: reading, writing, math and social studies. I assumed that chess, a longtime hobby, would be comparatively easy to teach. It wasn’t. Contrary to popular belief, chess instruction involves much more than rules and so-called “strategy.” Students need to learn to exercise self-control, to see the board impartially, to think about their opponents’ plans before their own. We tried to ingrain these habits by imposing two minutes of mandatory wait time before each move. Sometimes we made the kids write down three potential moves before choosing one. They still made lots of errors, but over time, we started to see small gains.

* * *

It is Thursday, May 7, and I’m sitting in an aisle seat near the back of a Nashville-bound plane. To my left Ramla Mohammed and Fatou Mbaye, two of the three girls on our team, flip through the Southwest Airlines magazine, picking out their dream houses. Across the aisle, Josh Garcia and Sadiki Bakari play blitz on a school-issued iPad. Yael Torres, who hates flying, rests his head against the window, willing the plane to the ground.

A total of 105 students from nine Success Academy schools are headed to Nationals; six teams are on this flight. At least half the plane is wearing orange and blue, the school colors. We are by far the largest single contingent headed to the tournament.

Buses shuttle us from the airport to Opryland, a glass-domed biosphere built up around a lush nine-acre garden and meandering river with cascading waterfalls. As soon as we step inside, kids and parent chaperones whip out their phones to snap photos of the breathtaking mega-hotel that – save for geographical identifiers such as “Y’all” t-shirts and the Jack Daniel’s Saloon – could just as easily be in Dubai.

The weekend tournament consists of a grueling seven games in three days (two Friday, three Saturday, two Sunday). Each game can last up to four hours, but most go an hour or two. Players are divided into sections according to their USCF ratings, which go up with each win and down with each loss. A rating of 1000 is around the 80th percentile for scholastic players. Jason and eight other HNW players are competing in the under 1000 section, which, because of our depth, we have a real shot to win. Trevhon, Ethan, Fatou and Elliot Deutou, all rated slightly above 1000, are playing in the open section against the top talent in the country. Goldenberg tells me the highest-rated kid, Andrew Zhang Hong (2284), a fourth grader from California, has private coaches who focus on different aspects of his game. We are underdogs, to say the least.

* * *

It is now Friday at 12:52 p.m. The first round begins in eight minutes. Goldenberg stands in front of the group in one of the Opryland conference rooms Success Academy rented out for the weekend and tells the team that, win, lose or draw, he expects them to take at least an hour on their games and to do their best.

“What percent effort are you gonna give me, Elliot? 90 percent? 99 percent?”

“No, 100 percent!”

“What about you, Mohammed? 99.9 percent?”

The sixth-grader jumps out of his seat, pounds his chest, and yells, “I’m gonna give you 110 percent!” Suddenly, everyone is high-fiving and hooting, like a football team ready to charge the field.

The players speed walk out of the room and join a river of kids flowing into the tournament hall. Amid the chaos, I spot Ethan searching for his board number on a trifold poster outside the hall. His head drops when he sees that his opponent’s rating is 1750.

“A lot of times, before a major event, my eyes, they start to like just go wild,” he told me later. “I could be excited, and the next thing I know I’m about to start crying. I was scared because I didn’t want to lose, but I knew that if I could beat this guy, my rating would really go high.”

Inside the chilly main ballroom, kids locate their assigned seats at the endless rows of tables. Spectators are sectioned off in the back eighth of the room, where hundreds of chairs have been set up in neat rows. Hardly anyone is sitting. Adults crowd the roped-off dividing line and crane their necks to catch glimpses of their kids, but it’s a futile effort in the room large enough to host a Tennessee Titans scrimmage.

The Success Academy Harlem North West team.<span class="_Credit">(Photo courtesy Tom Perna)</span>
The Success Academy Harlem North West team.(Photo courtesy Tom Perna)

When a loudspeaker voice announces, “You may start your clocks,” a parade of gentle taps echoes through the great hall. In this age of shrinking attention spans and electronics addictions, watching 2,000 kids silently playing an ancient board game is quite a sight. From my vantage point in the back, the long rows of swinging arms look like waves on a choppy sea. Pawns launch into the center of the boards, followed by knights and bishops in practiced opening patterns with names like the Caro-Kann, the Ruy Lopez, and the Sicilian Dragon. The boards, no longer neat and symmetrical, have become mental battlefields.

Outside in the foyer, flooded with sunlight streaming through the high glass ceiling, hoards of parents, coaches and siblings sit or lay on the carpeted floor in clusters of punny chess t-shirts. Chaperones from the Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters Middle School in Fort Greene wear AC/DC-themed “Rook Stars” tees. One team is decked out in Army camouflage. Crops of orange “Success Chess” shirts are all over. The red and black Dynamo Chess squad from Texas has brought lawn chairs and a giant glittery pole for easy spotting. One kid passes by in a white tee with “Keep chess weird” on the back.

After a few minutes, I head back to the team room, where Goldenberg and I will analyze games using the students’ notation sheets to replay the moves. Mohammed’s 110% effort runs out quickly. He walks through the door twenty minutes after the round started. He lost.

More players trickle in with sullen faces. Perhaps intimidated by the setting, they are not taking their time at the board. The number of blunders – mistakes that lose pieces – is baffling.

Ethan returns last, after nearly three hours in the tournament hall. He strides in confidently after earning a hard-fought draw, worth half a point.

“These 1800s aren’t so tough,” he announces assertively as his teammates congratulate him.

* * *

Nearly half of the teams at Nationals are from New York City. Besides the nine from Success Academy, some come from private schools such as Dalton and Trinity, and most of the others are affiliated with Chess-in-the-Schools (CIS), a nonprofit that runs chess programs in fifty-one public schools across the five boroughs. Success Academy, with its network of thirty-two schools and counting, is beginning to rival CIS in size and talent. O’Hanlon and several of his coaches, including Goldenberg, left CIS for Success, which requires a larger teaching load but pays better.

The Success chess program is in its infancy compared to perennial powers such as I.S. 318, a middle school in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood that has claimed more total national championships than the Yankees have won World Series. A few years ago, they won the high school national championship, competing against students four years older than them. Their prowess was featured in the 2012 documentary “Brooklyn Castle.”

John Galvin, 46, the I.S. 318 assistant principal and chess program coordinator, has been on the road with his team most of the spring. I spot him outside the tournament hall on Sunday morning. He looks tired.

“I haven’t had a Saturday off in six weeks,” he says.

In April, I.S. 318 won the middle school national championship in Louisville, Kentucky. The weekend before Nationals they beat Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and other top high schools in New York City to win the Mayor’s Cup. This weekend, he brought only four sixth graders (all rated 1700 or higher) to Nashville, and they are one point out of first place in the open section going into the final day.

With the help of longtime chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel, Galvin has created a tremendous chess culture at his school.

“During their lunch period they’re in my office playing chess,” Galvin says. “You just create this sort of mass effect. Kids who all love chess are around each other all day, so they think playing chess is normal.”

O’Hanlon believes Success Academy will one day compete with the top programs.

Reigning U.S. women's champion Grandmaster Irina Krush signs autographs for Success Academy players after speaking to them about the habits of strong chess.<span class="_Credit">(Photo courtesy Tom Perna)</span>
Reigning U.S. women’s champion Grandmaster Irina Krush signs autographs for Success Academy players after speaking to them about the habits of strong chess.(Photo courtesy Tom Perna)

“It took Galvin five years to win in the open section, to grow to that point,” O’Hanlon said. “This is only our second year competing in the open section. We need a little bit more time and more masters on staff, especially in the middle schools. Quality coaching is the key.”

Luckily, good coaches aren’t hard to find, especially in New York. In chess, there is a connection between the elite players and young beginners that doesn’t exist in, say, professional sports. At Nationals, the country’s top-ranked female player, Irina Krush, spoke to all of the Success Academy players about her thinking process at the board and signed autographs afterwards.

“A lot of our top players grew up playing in USCF national tournaments,” says Jean Hoffman, the USCF executive director. “We’re unique in the sense that it’s not like you have Little League and then you have professional baseball. We serve literally everyone.”

Many grandmasters give back to the game. Magnus Carlsen, the world’s top player, taught at a chess camp in New York this summer. Can you imagine Mark Teixeira taking time off to coach Little League?

* * *

Thanks to three-game sweeps on Saturday from Jason, Yael and fifth-grader Justin Chicaiza, the HNW U-1000 team rebounded into fifth place and a mere point out of second heading into Sunday’s rounds. If a few players win out, we still have a chance to take home first. The four players competing in the open section are holding their own but are nowhere near the top of the field. All morning I think about what I want to tell the team, and finally it comes to me.

“Raise your hand if you’ve made a mistake in one of your games so far,” I say to the group. Arms shoot up.

“Now, let me ask you this. When did you realize you made the mistake?”

“Right after I made the move,” Ramla calls out. The rest of the group agrees.

“What you have to start doing is realizing that the move is a mistake before you make it,” I say. “Play the move in your head, not on the board. Not until you are absolutely sure it is right.”

The players all nod, and I feel like I’ve said something meaningful to them for maybe the first time all year. We just might make a comeback and win this thing, I think to myself.

* * *

In his last game, Jason does everything we’ve taught him. He takes his time, considers several moves and chooses one that appears to make a major threat. But seconds after he hits his clock, he realizes his move, Qf3, is a blunder. The fork is a mirage; in two moves one of his rooks will be left unguarded, or “hanging.” He keeps a poker face, hoping his opponent, a short blonde-haired kid, doesn’t notice. He does. The blunder costs Jason both rooks, and seven moves later, he loses. In his excitement over the prospect of a checkmate, Jason lost his objectivity. His emotions got in the way.

He enters the team room with his head down, ignoring teammates asking him how he did. Plopping down in a chair, he covers his face and cries for close to half an hour.

“I knew I should have been more focused and paid more attention to what my opponent was thinking and all the pieces on the board,” Jason says later.

The HNW chess team finished tenth out of about forty teams in the U-1000 section. In the open section, Ethan led the way with three and a half out of seven points, and the team finished just inside the top half of the field.

When Jason finally stopped crying, Goldenberg patted his back and cheered him up.

“Coach Goldenberg said he was proud of me,” Jason told me afterwards. “He said the fact that I was upset showed that I cared. He said one day I would be a great chess player.”

I spent all year trying to figure out the secret to teaching chess. But now I realize that’s the wrong way to look at it. Chess is the teacher. It always has been.

* * *

Taylor McGraw teaches math at Success Academy Harlem North West and is pursuing an M.F.A. in creative writing at The New School.

Janny Ji is a recent graduate from Rhode Island School of Design. Now she works as a New York based illustrator and graphic designer. Janny loves plants, animals and kids. She enjoys creating works that bring happiness to people. She is always open to fun and exciting projects.