Have you been thinking of how you can start a chess club? Two years ago, I inherited our school’s chess club, and panicked. I knew nothing about chess, truly nothing; not what the pieces were called, how they moved, nor the objective of the game. I definitely did not have a clue how to teach or how to run a chess club.To make matters worse, the students, I’d be working with, had been playing for years under an excellent teacher.
I had no idea how I was going to pull it off, but luckily I found out before summer break, and spent the entire summer poring over all things chess and trying to figure out not how to start a chess club in my case, but how to run and teach a chess club. I read, joined online chess communities, and played daily for at least an hour. I also looked over the notes of the teacher I was replacing and tried to determine how she started the chess club, how she ran the chess club and how she taught chess. She had been so good at running the chess club though, that she had not recorded much I could follow, so I realized I would need to come up with my own ideas on how to run and teach the chess club.
I became very obsessed with chess, even though I lost consistently for weeks and months. I loved the challenge of not knowing, the steep learning curve and the competitiveness of trying to out think the other person. I played against the computer, on the lowest level of difficulty of course, and I played against players from several different countries.
I took notes on opening strategies, end game strategies, skewers, forks, the Queen's Raid and many other chess tactics and strategies. I tried to learn as much as I could about how to teach children the game of chess, the best resources to use and how to provide meaningful experiences with chess.
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What is Chess?
According to Lexico.com, chess is a game of strategy and skill played by two players on a checkered board that alternates between dark and light colors. In chess, each player starts the game with 16 pieces. Those 16 pieces are then moved according to detailed rules and procedures to capture and attack the opponent's pieces. The goal in chess is to place your opponent's King in check (make a move that attacks your opponent's King) and then checkmate (a move where the King that has been attacked has no escape).
When the school year started, I took a deep breath and took on the mantle of being my school’s chess club sponsor/coach, and it has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my educational career. When I took over our club, I had no clue what I was doing, especially not how to run or teach the chess club and we had about 20 consistent members in grades 3 to 5.
Today, I am a well oiled machine and know intimately all the details of how to start, how to run and how to teach in a chess club and we have approximately 70 members in grades 2 to 5. Our team, initially, only played against each other and participated in an annual school level chess tournament, but this past school year, we competed outside of our building and hosted our own chess tournament as well. I have also been able over the last 3 years to help other teachers learn and walk them through how to start a chess club, how to run and teach their chess club as well.
Several of our players are students who didn’t belong to any other group in the school, and struggled, before chess club, with a wide range of school issues such as limited social interactions with peers and staff, behavioral problems, and poor grades. Now, they look forward to coming to chess club, actively monitor their behavior, and work hard to maintain their grades, so that they can continue to be a part of our team. Chess has the potential to transform students in your school, and here are the top 5 reasons why you need a chess club:
1. Chess Provides STEM/STEAM Experiences
If your school is like most others in the country, they are working to include STEM/STEAM opportunities, and a chess club checks that box in a major way. Learning and understanding about the chess board and how pieces move will develop mathematical skills. Students gain exposure to mathematical terms and spatial reasoning as they become exposed to all things chess.
Chess can also be used to teach additional mathematical skills such as geometry, multiplication, numeracy and calculation. There are many researchers and articles that explore the relationship between Chess and Mathematics. Unsure of where to start and what lessons to teach in a chess club ? Here is a sample of lessons on how to use chess to teach mathematics.
2. Chess Helps to Develop Problem Solving Skills
Trying to arrive at, and avoid check and checkmate provides a high level of exposure to problem solving. Students learn to be flexible and adjust under pressure, think multiple moves ahead of where they are in the game, anticipate and plan for their opponent’s tactics, and all in a fun and positive environment.
Everywhere you look, nowadays, there is an emphasis on teaching skills that will empower students to be prepared for unknown future careers. The skill of problem solving is typically at the top of the list. Merriam Webster defines problem solving as the ability to solve issues through a specific process.
Chess nurtures the skill of problem solving through the constant back and forth of attacking and defending and trying to out think the person sitting on the other side of the board. It is especially efficient at nurturing that skill in the end of game strategies to find and execute checkmate.
3. Chess is Inexpensive
Chess is also an excellent experience to offer since it is relatively inexpensive, and doesn’t come with the hefty price tag most other clubs, especially STEM start-ups, do. You can start a club with a few boards and chess pieces, some tables, and chairs. As far as teaching materials go, there are numerous ones to choose from. Your school library will probably have some offerings.
Personally, I like Steve Schneider because his materials are well written, simple, and again, cost effective. They give detailed information on how to teach in a chess club. If there’s absolutely no room in your school budget to purchase these items, check out Donors Choose or your PTA/PTO.
Later on, or in the beginning, if you’re able, you may want to consider items such as chess clocks, chess notation pads (individual sheets can be printed for free online), and a demonstration board, but they are not immediate necessities.
4. Chess Teaches Sportsmanship
Chess cultivates sportsmanship in a non-traditional and non-“athletic way.” Students learn that you can compete with someone mentally, and discover how exciting it is to try to out think or outmaneuver an opponent. They learn to have a positive attitude, irrespective of a win or a loss, because each game, even those that end in a loss, helps them improve their game play.
In my club, sportsmanship is a critical factor in how I run our chess club. We do a handshake and say something positive like “Good game” after every game. The awesome part is they actually mean both. Even students that lose consistently have a positive attitude because with each loss, they discover new approaches and become determined not to lose in that way again.
5. Chess will Diversify the Clubs at your School
The last reason your school needs a chess club is one I alluded to in the beginning, to diversify your school’s club offerings. For many students, especially in elementary school, they’ve never been exposed to competitions that required anything other than athletic skill.
In recent years, schools have worked to offer reading bowls, art clubs, bands, spelling bees etc., and a chess club would be a great addition to whatever other offerings you currently have in place.
All a student needs to join their school’s chess club is a desire to learn. I hope you step out on a limb, like I did, and enter a world of pawns, knights, and kings. You won’t regret it, and your students and school will thank you.