Chess club exercises mental agility

BY STEVE GOLDBERG, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Trophies proudly displayed in a school hallway are not unusual, but those in the Solomon Schechter Day School are not for football or baseball heroics, and they weren’t earned by the soccer or tennis teams. These trophies reflect the success of the school’s chess teams.

Alongside the chess trophies sit a number of unique chess sets, most of which were produced long before any of Schechter’s students (or their parents) were born.

The genesis of the school chess group goes back about seven years, when long-time chess enthusiast Bill Wright was asked to develop a chess program to join the school’s other after-school “enrichment” activities. This year, about a dozen kids, from second through sixth grade, have signed up for the Tuesday afternoon sessions.

Wright notes that he can expect to keep the attention of the students for only about ten minutes, so he keeps his instruction brief, then turns the kids loose. Typically they’ll play rounds of blitz chess, in which an entire game is played within a few minutes.

Students have the option to also play in the Gateway Chess League, a St. Louis-area interscholastic league. Last school year, Schechter fielded two four-player teams, one in the “8th grade and under” division, and one in the “5th grade and under” division. Competing against other area schools in the Thursday afternoon league, the 8th grade and under team finished in a three-way tie for first place, while the younger team ended in a tie for third place.

Coach Wright is an avid chess set collector, and about four years ago thought the kids might enjoy producing their own unique set. Not wanting to bring power drills to school, he began work on two sets at home, then supervised as Schechter students assembled the pieces during their afternoon enrichment time. These sets, whose pieces are composed of wing nuts, screws and other assorted metal wingdings, are displayed alongside the trophies the team has won over the years.

Two of the older sets on display from Wright’s personal collection are known as “barleycorn” sets, with pieces constructed from sheep bone. When Wright first unpacked one of these sets, he found the antique pieces protected by a rolled-up German newspaper dated from 1890. Another set on display is a Japanese product Wright picked up in 1944, but due to the politics of the time, he scraped off the “made in Japan” notation.

It happened once that Wright came across a box of Pepperidge Farm cookies made in the shape of chess pieces. Seeing a kosher symbol on the box, he happily purchased it to bring to his Schechter students, only to be shocked when the kids opened the box at school. It was mislabeled and actually contained Christmas cookies.

Thanks to the efforts of Wright and admissions director and librarian Sue Albert, a small chess library is available to all students, and is well used, according to Albert.

Fourth grader Noah Hartman participates in the chess enrichment program — and possesses an incredible adult-like vocabulary, Albert noted. Asked what he enjoys about chess, he said simply, “It makes me think!”

Rabbi Allen Selis, head of school at Schechter, is quite proud of the chess program, seeing it as a “positive addition to the challenging dual curriculum” at the school. Enrollment in the current session is now closed, but students interested in participating in the next chess program beginning in January can contact Sue Albert at 314-576-6177.

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