Seven-year-old Gavin House, a student at Prairieville Primary, took second place in his age group — kindergarten through second grade — at the Foundation for East Baton Rouge School System’s back-to-school chess tournament on Saturday.
Children of all ages representing nearly 20 schools participated in the tournament at Northeast High School in Pride, said Janet Pace, executive director of the Foundation.
Pace wasn’t sure which was more surprising — that so many children decided to spend their LSU gameday Saturday playing chess or that so many children were sitting so quietly, and for so long.
“Did you see them? Those tiny kids concentrating on their boards, not making a sound?” Pace asked.
That level of concentration lasted through four rounds of play, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The tournament is part of the Foundation’s plan to support student achievement in all schools, Pace said, and chess is a low-cost tool that can improve math and science performance in an era where low-cost, effective solutions are needed
“It costs seven bucks for a chess board, and it can be used as a teaching tool for any subject,” Pace said, adding that the foundation offers training throughout the city on how to teach chess and use it in the classroom.
House’s mother, Cristy, said her family moved to the area recently, and chess was a big part of Gavin’s life back in Kentucky.
“He was part of a chess team there, and he had a chess coach,” House said. “We were glad to find this program here.”
For those students who kept a written record of their games — the tournament provided game sheets at every table — employees from IBM, also a sponsor of the tournament, volunteered to go over strategy in between rounds.
That was a service Gavin took full advantage of for the game he lost, and he said it was helpful. He learned to make better use of castling — a move that uses a rook and king in combination — and to more strategically place pieces on his board.
It’s the second year for the chess program, Pace said, and the feedback has been good.
In addition to direct teaching, such as using chess in math lessons, chess also has tangential benefits of teaching strategic thinking, planning, concentration, patience or even sportsmanship, Woodlawn Middle School teacher Nicole Foster said. “That improves performance in all subjects,” she said. Foster also coaches the chess team at Woodlawn and teaches robotics.
In between rounds of play, the Woodlawn Middle team, including Joshua Gray, 13, and Henry Thorton, 12, sat at a table in the Northeast High cafeteria with a couple of portable chess sets.
The first thing they learn to do when they sit down at the board, said teammate John Askins, 13, is to shake hands.
“Let me show you a chess handshake,” said William Foster, who is Nicole Foster’s son. “It’s a firm handshake,” he said, demonstrating.
When you’re sitting face-to-face with your opponent, William Foster said, it’s important to be a good sport, whether you win or lose.
Nicholas Nienuber, 12, said chess has taught him to always think two steps ahead.
That’s critical when it comes to learning her subjects, science and robotics, Nicole Foster said.
Marshall and Emily Price brought their two children, St. Jude first-grader Liam and second-grader Quinn, though they aren’t part of an organized team.
The boys enjoy playing, Marshall Price said, and while they play computer chess often, having tournaments like the foundation’s, he said, are great opportunities to improve their skills. “A computer may do the same thing every time, but another person will change things up,” he said.