By JOHN LELAND APRIL 22, 2016
Benjamin Kwon does not look like a gladiator, but you should see him play the Fried Liver Attack, a wildly aggressive chess opening that wages an all-out assault on the opposing player’s king. The opening is not for the fainthearted.
On a recent Friday afternoon, he beamed as he rattled off the first moves for both sides: pawn to E4, pawn to E5, bishop to C4, and so on, until he got to the real moment of attack, knight to G5. This is where the Fried Liver Attack gets hairy. “Nothing can block it,” he said, his face lighting up.
Benjamin Kwon is 6 years old.
We were sitting in small wooden chairs at Public School 77, the Lower Lab School, a school for gifted and talented students on the Upper East Side. “Sitting” might be an imprecise word for Ben’s state of constant up-and-down motion.
Last month, Lower Lab’s team of kindergartners and first graders finished first in the state chess tournament, defeating elite private schools like Dalton and Avenues: The World School. Earlier in the school year, a Lower Lab team of first graders won the national championship for their grade. The next national tournament is in May.
For Ben, a first grader who did not go to the nationals, the state tournament in Saratoga was a weekend to remember.
“The team trophy was taller than me,” he said, almost jumping out of his seat. “The dinner place was so yum — Applebee’s. The first thing you got was nachos.”
Chess is enjoying a boom in New York, and much of it is because of schools like Lower Lab, which have brought the game to very young players, often as part of the regular curriculum. Educators cite research showing that chess helps students develop analytical thinking, set goals, concentrate for extended periods and learn to delay gratification.
“It gives them a different way of using their brain,” said Sandra Miller, the principal at Lower Lab, where every student gets 10 weeks of chess in kindergarten. “It’s an amazing opportunity for them to challenge themselves. With gifted and talented students, sometimes kids get bored with classes, because the work comes so easy for them.”
For Ben Kwon, the appeal was simple. “I really got excited because all my friends were playing chess,” he said.
For schools, chess is also cheaper than sports that require outdoor fields or a lot of equipment.
On a Friday this month, about 70 students from Lower Lab swarmed the weekly after-school session taught by instructors from ChessNYC, a for-profit company that runs programs in 40 New York schools.
Spring was beckoning outside, but the children did not seem to notice. Logan Brain, 26, an instructor, rehashed a game from a recent adult tournament and asked the students what moves each player should make.
Ian Buchanan, a third grader, suggested an unorthodox move, which Mr. Brain questioned. “That’s a Karjakin move,” Ian countered, referring to Sergey Karjakin, a Russian player who at age 12 became the youngest grandmaster ever.
The name drew respect in the room. Mr. Karjakin, now 26, will play the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, 25, in the World Chess Championship in
New York City this November. It is the first time the championship tournament will be played in New York since 1995.
Ian is one of the top players at Lower Lab, but he was recently passed by his younger brother, Royal, a first grader, who fidgeted in front of him. Royal is among the best 6-year-olds in the country. The brothers’ success has surprised their mother, Li Xiao, a portfolio manager at Citigroup.
“My husband and I don’t know chess at all,” she said. The game has also been a window on their characters.
“You see their personality, how they deal with the problems, and the stress,” she said. “Royal is fine with losing. He doesn’t cry. I wonder at this age if they get nervous. I haven’t seen it that much. They don’t realize the situation yet.”
Royal sometimes gets restless in his classes, but can sit for hours at a time over a chessboard, his mother said. “It’s the only activity he can focus on,” Ms. Xiao said. “He goes to tournaments, and sometimes the game goes on for two hours. I’m surprised he can sit, but he does.”
During a break, Royal answered questions distractedly, staring at his fingers as if contemplating future moves. Like his teammates, he readily cited his chess rating, a figure that changes each time a player wins or loses in a tournament.
Players monitor their ratings and those of their friends on the website plycount.com. At the start of a match, the first question after they sit down at the board is often, What’s your rating?
Since kindergarten, Royal and another boy, Morgan Mairaj, have leapfrogged each other as the team’s top player, with ratings climbing above 1,300, or twice as high as most of their teammates. Players raise their ratings by beating higher-rated opponents, but fall back if they lose to opponents with lower ratings. At tournaments, players are grouped according to their ratings. Royal said his goal was to top 1,800 by the end of the year.
“Magnus Carlsen is 1,500 higher than me,” he said. (It should be noted that Mr. Carlsen is the highest rated chess player in history, at 2,863. Bobby Fischer never broke 2,800.)
For parents, the numbers are a mixed blessing. “The coaches and parents hate it, but kids absolutely love it,” said Peter Marinis, who has two sons playing on the team, and a third coming up behind them. “They’re like, Dad, what’s my score? I never knew they were so competitive.”
In a room across the hall, Reid Segarra, a kindergartner, unwound the dilemma of the young chess player.
“Chess helps you think better, like, which move should I do?” Reid said. “If you’re in a losing position, then you have to make your brain think really hard, because if your opponent makes a mistake, you can come back. Also, if you’re in a winning position, you just can’t make mistakes, so your brain has to think really, really, really hard so you don’t make a mistake, or he could come back if you do.
And if it’s an even position, you have to get your brain to think really, really hard, harder than a winning position or a losing position, because you want to get in a winning position.”
For competitive players and their families, the game is demanding. There’s a tournament somewhere in the city every week or two, typically lasting all day; parents from Lower Lab drove to Saratoga for the two-day state championships, and to Nashville last year for the nationals. Mr. Brain assigns 50 chess puzzles weekly as homework. Then there are pickup games or Saturday lessons at the Chess Forum, a store on Thompson Street in Greenwich Village, or at the tables in Washington Square Park.
“These kids are very committed, and if you’re not committed, it is very difficult to stay at the top echelon,” said Ashar Mairaj, the father of Morgan and an older daughter, Momoca, who is also one of the school’s top players. “You have your puzzle set every day. You play with your sibling every day. You have a tutor that comes once a week and teaches you strategy. Every day you have a regimen.”
The game can also be expensive. At Lower Lab, fees for the after-school program top $500 a semester, which helps pay for the teachers from ChessNYC. Tournaments run about $40 per student; travel costs are extra. The school and PTA pay for kindergarten instruction run by ChessNYC, and parent volunteers run a lunchtime chess club for girls, formed to address the shortage of girls in the competitive ranks.
“It’s a really big commitment,” said Amy Gillston, a child therapist, whose first-grade son, Noah, attends Lower Lab. “Some of these private schools, they spend on private coaching with the best of the best. All of us agree that we’re only doing this while it’s fun.”
On a recent afternoon, Pattie Friedman and her son, Davin, walked from the Chess Forum to Washington Square Park in search of Davin’s tutor, a weathered character named Abderrahim Rajahi, 55, who has been playing there since the late 1980s, when he learned the game from the old-time hustlers and later joined their ranks. Somewhere along the way he lost his upper front teeth.
In the early days, he said, he worked as a bicycle messenger by day and played chess in various parks until dawn, losing $40 a night.
“I didn’t read no books,” he said of his training. “I played the same hustler every day for a year and a half. I got whipped. Then one night he couldn’t beat me.”
Davin goofed through a game with Mr. Rajahi, then asked if he could run around. When he returned, Mr. Rajahi grilled him on the Ruy Lopez opening, one of the oldest and most venerated chess openings (the Fried Liver, Mr. Rajahi said, is for beginners). “Don’t be guessing,” Mr. Rajahi told Davin. “Use your mind.
Chess is a war of the mind.”
The teacher said he did not have a set fee for lessons. At Growing Minds, a company that runs the chess program at Avenues, private lessons cost $90 an hour; ChessNYC charges $75 to $95 for a one-hour home lesson.
Mr. Rajahi said he was planning a summer day camp that might combine
chess with lessons in math and foreign languages.
“I don’t look at it just as a game,” he said. “It’s a way to make a beautiful mind of a kid’s mind. With the experience I had, I try to turn it into a good thing. You teach a kid to think positively and to make a good plan for the future. Sometimes you make mistakes that cost you the game. Life is like that.”
A week later, Davin and 28 other Lower Lab players made their way to the Avenues school for their first major tournament since winning the state championships in Saratoga. The tournament brought together students from 65 area schools, and had to turn students away after filling its 250 slots. Boys outnumbered girls by about four to one. Pandemonium and sugar intake swelled the halls, only slowly giving way to chess.
Peter Marinis and his sons arrived at 9:30 a.m., after 8 a.m. baseball; later, they had a birthday party to attend.
For parents, the tournaments are an endurance test, often lasting eight hours. In contrast to sporting events or dance recitals, junior chess tournaments typically do not allow parents into the rooms where the children play, so they waited in a team room, learning the results only when the children returned between rounds to go over their games with Mr. Brain.
“It’s stomach-churning,” said Mr. Mairaj, waiting for the results of his children’s games. “It’s never boring. How can something that gives you anxiety be boring?”
The Lower Lab team got off to a rocky start, with the first three players losing their first games.
Mr. Marinis’s son Rylan, 6, slumped toward the paper score sheet and wrote a zero to announce his loss. “High five,” Mr. Marinis said. “Win or lose, it’s always high fives.”
Then Ben Kwon posted the team’s first victory. He played an opening similar
to the Fried Liver, but not exactly, he said, and beat an opponent rated higher than he was. He sailed across the room to his mother, Michelle Park.
Ms. Park said she had been surprised by how much there was to the chess subculture — how many tournaments, how many players. She mentioned several other tournaments going on at other schools the same weekend. “We didn’t know this existed before,” she said.
By midafternoon, things were looking better for Lower Lab. In the fifth-floor library, where students with ratings below 800 matched off, Noah Gillston, a quiet first grader with a mop of sandy hair, stood up to move his knight across the board. He was on a roll, winning his first three games.
Just before 2:30, the beginner players marched into the team room carrying trophies. More wins followed. Noah won all four games, leading his group to victory. Mr. Brain comforted a father whose son had lost some winnable games. “Those mistakes go away,” Mr. Brain told the father, before turning to the son. “I’m proud of you,” he said. “You’re doing well.”
Seven hours into the tournament, families in the less advanced groups — whose games tend to be shorter — were making their way out into the late- afternoon sunshine. Ms. Xiao awaited the return of her two sons, whose games were still in progress. “Now’s the real work,” she said: cooking dinner for five, supervising Sunday night homework and maybe stealing a quiet moment with her husband. “Then I clean up and get to bed at 12 o’clock, basically.”
Monday morning everything would start up again — the tutors, the chess puzzles, the competitive games between siblings. And in less than a month, some will go to the national championships in Nashville.
Mr. Marinis, who is planning to fly to Nashville this year (last year he and others drove), was bound for ice cream and the birthday party, his three sons in tow. His older son, Pearce, had won three of his four games, raising his rating to a tantalizing 999.
“I use these as lessons for homework,” Mr. Marinis said of the tournament. “I say, ‘If you can do what you did on Sunday, look, this math is not going to be a problem.’”
A version of this article appears in print on April 24, 2016, on page MB1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Littlest Chess Champions.
By Lee Stoll Published: May 31, 2015 at 1:53 PM PDT
SEATTLE — Sports can be an good way to teach kids life lessons, and those lessons don’t need to be on the football field or soccer pitch. A popular local program is using chess to teach children valuable moves in the game of life.
With a sweet smile, Seattle police officer Denise Bouldin — known as detective Cookie — helps keep kids focused on kings and queens. Last week, 180 fifth graders competed in Bouldin’s youth chess club tournament for bragging rights and a trophy taller than most competitors.
“You get to play other people and you don’t know their strategies and it’s a little challenging, so it’s exciting and fun,” one player said.
But the game is meant to help kids in the South Rainier Valley battle challenges that are not so black and white. The community has seen murders, gang violence and drugs. One of the things chess teaches the kids is that every choice has a consequence.
“(In chess) you can lose your king. In real life, you can lose your life,” Bouldin said.
Bouldin started the program with grant money and about 16 players. But it didn’t take long before kids were lining up to play.
“I had to put chess boards on the ground on the floor for them to play,” she said. “It was such a success.”
The program is open to kids 7-year-old and up at the Rainier Beach Library.
“The Morals of Chess”
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Playing Chess is the oldest and most universal game known to man; its origins well beyond the memory of history, and it has throughout the ages been the amusement of civilized nations such as Asia, the Persians, the Indians, and the Chinese. Europe has had it for over 1,000 years; the Spaniards had spread it over their side of America, and just now it begins to make its appearance in these Northern States. The game is so interesting in itself that it doesn’t need the incentive of a prize for people to be engrossed in it, and so it is never played for money. Therefore, people who have time available for such activities can’t find a purer game. The following article, written to correct some improper conduct among a few young friends, also shows that its effects on the mind are not just innocent, but beneficial to both the person who lost and the winner.
The game of Chess is not just an idle amusement. There are several valuable qualities of the mind, useful in every aspect of life, that can be acquired or strengthened by it, which can become habits ready to be used in any occasion. For life is a kind of chess game where we often have points to gain, competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there are various good and bad events, that are to some degree, due to good judgment or the lack of it.
By playing at chess, then, we may learn:
1. Foresight, which looks a little into the future and considers the consequences of a certain action: For it occurs continually to the player, “If I move this piece, what will be the advantages of my new situation? How can my opponent use it against me? What other moves can I make to support it, and to defend myself from his attacks?”
2. Circumspection, which studies the whole chess board, or the scene of action, the relation between several pieces and situations, the dangers they are respectively exposed to, all the possibilities for helping each other, the probability that the opponent may make this or that move to attack this or other piece; and the different ways that can be used to avoid his attack or turn it against him.
3. Caution, not to make our moves too hastily. This habit is best acquired by observing strictly the laws of the game such as, “If you touch a piece, you must move it somewhere. If you set it down, you must leave it there.” So it is best that these rules should be observed as the game becomes the image of human life, particularly of war: If you carelessly have put yourself into a bad or dangerous position, you can’t obtain the enemy’s permission to withdraw your troops and place them in a more secure spot. You must allow all the consequences of your rash decision.
And lastly, we learn by playing chess the habit of not being discouraged by seemingly unfavorable circumstances, but the habit of hoping for a favorable change and persevering in the search of a solution. The game is so full of events, there are so many turns and twists, its development is subject to many sudden changes of fortune, so that a player frequently discovers, after long contemplation, the means of extricating himself from a supposedly insurmountable problem. In this way one is encouraged to continue playing to the very end, with hopes of victory by our own skill, or at least getting stale-mated through the negligence of our opponent. And consider, often seen in chess, that particular instances of success in a game are likely to produce presumption, and as a consequence, carelessness—by which more is lost than was gained with any previous advantage. Misfortune, on the other hand, produces more care and attention by which we may recover what was lost. So we learn not to be too discouraged by our opponent’s current success, nor to worry about the final outcome on every little check he receives while pursuing it.
We should, therefore, choose this beneficial game over others that do not come with the same advantages, and should consider every opportunity to play and enjoy it. And every action or word that is unfair, disrespectful, or in any way causes uneasiness, should be avoided as the opposite of the immediate intention of both players, which is to have a good time.
Therefore, first, if it is agreed to play strictly by the rules, then those rules are to be observed exactly by both players and the rules should not be insisted for one side while changing it for the other: This is not fair.
Second, if it is agreed not to observe the rules exactly, but one side demands some whims, he should be as willing to allow them to his opponent.
Third, no false move should ever be made to get your self out of trouble, or to gain an advantage. There can be no pleasure in playing with a person that gets caught cheating.
Fourth, If your opponent takes a long time to move, you should not rush him, or express any annoyance at his delay. You should not sing, nor whistle, nor look at your watch, nor pick up a book to read, nor start tapping your feet on the floor or your fingers on the table, nor do any thing that may disturb his concentration. All these things are unpleasant and do not show your skill in playing, but your slyness or your rudeness.
Fifth, you should not endeavor to distract and deceive your opponent by pretending to have made bad moves, and saying you have now lost the game, in order to make him overconfident and careless, and not pay attention to your schemes. This is fraud and deceit, not skill in the game.
Sixth, when you win a game you must not brag or use insulting expressions, nor display too much pleasure; but attempt to console your opponent and make him or her less disappointed by every kind and civil words that may be used sincerely. For example, You understand the game better than me, but you were a little distracted., or, You play too fast, or, “You had the better game, but something happened to distract your thoughts, and that turned it in my favor.”
Seventh, If you are a spectator while others play, be perfectly silent. If you give advice you will offend both parties: To the player against whom you give the advise because it may cause him to lose; and to the player you advised because, even though your suggestions may be good and he follows it, he loses the pleasure he might have had if you had permitted him to think until it occurred to him. Even after a move or series of moves, you must not, by touching the pieces, show how it might have been played better. That can be irritating and cause disputes about the actual situation. Any talking to the players distracts them and is therefore irritating. Nor you should give the smallest hints to either party, by any kind of noise or gesture. If you do, you are unworthy to be a spectator. If you have a mind to express your judgment, do it by playing your own game when you have the opportunity—Not criticizing, meddling, or counseling the play of others.
Lastly, if the game is not to be played strictly, according to the rules above, then curb your desire to beat your opponent and just be pleased with a win over yourself. Don’t eagerly snatch every advantage caused by your opponent’s bad moves or distraction, but point out to him or her, very nicely, that such a move places or leaves a piece in danger and unsupported or that by another bad move, the king may be placed in a dangerous situation, etc. By this great civility (in contrast to the unfairness forbidden above) you may indeed lose the game to your opponent, but you will win something better: His esteem, his respect, and his affection; together with the silent approval and good will of impartial spectators.