I’m no chess master but I can outsmart a bunch of third graders.
At least that’s what I thought when a teacher asked me to start a chess club at Lowell Elementary School in Duluth this spring. It turns out the video game generation can learn the rules, pieces and strategy of old-fashioned board games quickly, but understanding how to play the game is a little more difficult.
I’ve been an American Literacy Council reading volunteer at the Kenwood neighborhood school for two years now. The weekly morning classes have me listening to students read stories about mysterious scare crows, Bruce Lee, Amelia Earhart and chickens who think the sky is falling.
My supervisor, integration specialist Luisa Pierce, says coaching students to read at a measured pace AND comprehend the stories are always the hardest things to teach.
Because most kids just want to go fast.
This year, following morning classes, I started eating lunch with a couple of third graders – Xavier and Jovany. Every Wednesday, the two marched into the reading room fresh off the playground still dressed in oversized winter coats and balancing trays filled with pizza, ranch sauce and apples.
“How’s it going today guys?” I’d ask.
Xavier and Jovany would fill me in on the latest video games, school bus troublemakers or what was happening in their neighborhood. I’d toss them some Hershey chocolate before they left for class – because everyone deserves a little dessert.
Mrs. Pierce said the lunchtime meals were good for the boys. “They can always use another good male role model in their life,” she said.
While I tried to dispense advice and encourage recreational reading, talk always returned to the latest Minecraft adventure or some Internet video game battle with a kid from across town.
One day I said: “You two like playing games right? How about chess?
To my surprise, both Xavier and Jovany already knew about this crazy game played without joysticks and 65-inch TV screens. Jovany even knew how to play.
Chess boards were scrounged up from various sources. The game was set up for battle and pretty soon the guys knew which piece moved at an angle and which jumped over others.
Then more kids started showing up. Fifth graders!
Pretty soon there were two or three games going at once.
Chess was a hit.
And very quickly I understood why the school reading teacher supported my board game idea: A good chess player, like a good reader, learns how to pace themselves at the speed of understanding.
Video games teach kids how to go fast. To win, you need reflexes like lightning. Moves must be memorized. Fast thinking always gets you a bonus flower. Whoever crosses the finish line first wins.
Chess is something different. It takes time to absorb each move. Concentration is rewarded over reaction. Understanding an opponent’s move tops moving faster than the opponent. Good chess players take time to read every piece on the board like good book worms take time to read every word on the page.
Once, while standing over a fifth grade match, I watched each player make a move while an unguarded king was in the direct path of an attacking queen.
“Time out, Time out!!” I shouted. “Mace, look at your king! It’s been in check for the last two moves.”
“What?” said Mace. “Oh, what do we do now?”
Not even the chess master knows the answer to that one.