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Checkmate: Interest in youth chess grows despite school funding cutbacks

03/09/2015 Lancaster Online By Erin Negley

Sam Cassidy twirls his red bangs as he contemplates his next move and sets the rook down.

“Check.”

His opponent, Amera Hemming, reaches out to move her chess piece and freezes her arm above the board as she thinks ahead. She moved her king out of immediate danger, but into a corner.

Sam moves his queen quickly.

“Checkmate.”

They raise their hands and look for a coach before going downstairs to practice another game. Round two will soon start.

These middle school students serve as the next generation for the game that’s been around for centuries. Today, chess can be played on smartphone apps, and it has a place in pop culture with the scientists on “The Big Bang Theory” playing three-person chess.

The game was in the news last month as Spain moved to make chess a mandatory subject in schools. The decision-makers in Spain were convinced that chess “improves memory and strategic capacity, teaches students to make decisions under high pressure and develops concentration.”

Local chess fans agree, especially for young players in what are called scholastic leagues. Scholastic chess groups in Pennsylvania notice a growing interest, thanks to more tournaments, like the one chess coach Jere Cassidy recently held in Lancaster. There’s also an influx of players with Indian and Chinese backgrounds, said Joshua Anderson, director of the Pennsylvania State Scholastic Championship. However some public schools in Lancaster County have dropped chess as they have less time and money for clubs or because there’s no available coach.

“There’s more students, but unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of the public schools because of the budget situation,” said Matt Binder, adviser of the Centerville Middle School chess team in Hempfield School District.

Winter’s filled with local chess matches and tournaments, and this year Lancaster County will host several of Pennsylvania State Chess Federation’s state tournaments next weekend at Lancaster Host Resort and Conference Center. In April, the state amateur chess championship will be held at Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Ephrata.

Middle school chess

Last week, the church hosted the Lancaster Friendship Chess League’s annual individual tournament for local middle school chess players. The competition brings together the four best players from each team throughout the county.

Sam Cassidy, a fourth-grader at Our Mother of Perpetual Help School, and his opponent, Amera Hemming, a seventh-grader at Lancaster Country Day, talked about chess after their match.

“I like playing chess because you have to like think up a strategy and your strategy changes and you have to think of what she would do and you have to think about everything,” Sam said. “I just really like making up the strategy.”

“I like playing chess because it’s quiet, and you can think about what you’re going to do,” Amera said. She also liked being able to take a break from lacrosse and soccer to focus on strategy.

Five years ago, 15 schools sent chess clubs to the league events. This year’s tournament brought students from four: Hempfield School District as well as Our Mother of Perpetual Help School in Ephrata, Lititz Christian School and Lancaster Country Day.

The coaches said schools, especially public schools, pressed to focus on testing aren’t making time for chess. Tight budgets don’t help the situation.

High school chess

Participation dropped less dramatically at the high school level. This winter, Lancaster Scholastic Chess League’s matches pitted eight teams against each other, half private and half public, said league president Ned Bushong. A few years ago, there were 10 teams.

It takes a while to build a chess culture in a school as well as find volunteers and the time. But it’s worth it because the game builds brain power as students come up with their moves, said Bushong, a middle school science teacher at Lancaster Country Day.

“My best kids are thinking six, seven moves in the future,” Bushong said. “This is why the games take 75 minutes, because they’re taking five minutes to make a move.”

That’s why he’s pushing for a team at every school in the county.

“I think the kids are out there,” he said. “It takes the time of one caring faculty member.”

Elementary chess

A growing local elementary chess tournament could recruit more players and field more chess teams.

Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 started the tournament five years ago as an affordable enrichment opportunity that boosts academics and brings together students from different schools.

Janice Estabrook, IU Gifted Education and Enrichment Coordinator, works with tournament director Tom Magar to vet information about chess and how to start a club. They share the best with local schools.

They found interest throughout both counties and filled the 20-team brackets last year. Estabrook expects a full house for the April 8 tournament with students from kindergarten through sixth grade.

“It’s a really diverse event,” she said. “Sometimes the little ones beat the big ones.”

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