Young Jewish chess players develop matchless life skills

William Motchan
Edan Shoghi holds a black king, his favorite chess piece. He said he considers the king the most valuable attacking piece on the chess board. Photo: Bill Motchan 

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Edan Shoghi, an energetic 9-year-old at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, enjoys playing soccer, basketball, tennis and Minecraft. But he really excels at chess.

“What I like best about playing chess is strategy and tactics,” Edan said. “Let’s say my queen is attacking my opponent’s king and my bishop is attacking the queen. Basically it would be a free queen, because I’m checking the king while attacking the queen. That’s a cool tactic.”

Edan frequently wins in matches against other third grade chess players, using the devastating double attack he described. He usually beats his father Kooresh, too.

Since the pandemic began, board games, puzzles and video games have grown steadily in popularity. That’s especially true of chess. Toy and game market researchers report a 25% increase in sales of chess sets over the past year. The surge in chess interest from adults has also been fueled by the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit.”

COVID-19 has limited in-person chess matches, so many players now go online at chess.com. The game has also become a popular spectator sport with thousands of viewers who watch virtually on the website twitch.tv. Jewish chess champion Levy Rozman is one of the most popular players on twitch.

In fact, Jews have long dominated the chess world. The book “The Rating of Chess Players, Past and Present” rated 476 major tournament players from the 19th-century onward. Half of the 51 highest ranked players were Jewish or of Jewish descent.

Jewish chess grandmaster and Webster University chess coach Susan Polgar said she sees a direct connection between Judaism and success at chess because the game requires mental acuity, memory and reasoning skills.

“I think it’s not a coincidence,” Polgar said. “It’s because learning and thinking and questioning are very Jewish qualities. When the pogroms and the Holocaust were happening, Jewish families told their kids, whatever is in your head, that’s the only thing you can take with you, and sadly Jews throughout history were forced to leave their homes, and over the years they could take very little with them, or nothing, and leave empty-handed. And what they could rely on what was their knowledge.”

St. Louis is considered by many to be a chess mecca. That’s due to the presence of three significant institutions, according to Stephanie Berk, publisher of STL KidsCompete magazine, and the parent of a chess prodigy.

“It’s a wonderfully unique situation,” Berk said. “You have the Gateway Chess Club, a school-based club with monthly tournaments. Then you have Susan Polgar who dominates the college arena. She brings in students from all over the world.” 

Berk also noted the St. Louis Chess Club in the Central West End (and the World Chess Hall of Fame across the street). 

“The chess center has chess family days on Sundays, so it’s a great place for Jewish children to play on a day other than Shabbat,” Berk said. 

Andrew and Josh Thomadsen enjoy playing chess anytime. The Olivette brothers attend Congregation B’nai Amoona. Before the pandemic, they could often be found on a ballfield with bat and glove playing on a select team. When many youth team sports shut down early this year, the boys started playing more chess. They have a similar approach to Edan Shoghi: strategy is everything.

“The initial moves are very important,” said Andrew, 12. “I like to study openings, and Josh studies tactics and looks for ways to take advantage of a player who leaves a piece standing there and is vulnerable to be taken. You do that, and you lose the piece.”

Andrew turned to 9-year-old Josh and complimented his younger brother: “You go for the blunder.”

Both boys learned to play as members of the chess club at Old Bonhomme School. Their mother Jillian said it was important that her sons learned to play.

“I keep reading about all the benefits of chess and strategic thinking and how you think about things a few steps ahead,” she said. “It also helps with concentration. I think it fosters a lot of understanding.”

Edan said he started playing chess in kindergarten.

“It was before all of this COVID stuff,” he said. “I saw some people playing chess at my school and I said ‘Oh, wow, that’s cool,’ so I joined the chess club and at first I didn’t like it and I wanted to quit, but my parents encouraged me to continue so I did.”

Edan’s mother Mariel Brechner said the game took some time for him to get comfortable with.

“In the beginning there was some frustration and challenges, but we encouraged him to stick with it,” she said. “Now, it’s something he really enjoys and it’s nice to see your child take an interest in something outside of school.”

Amy and Zach Hammerman’s sons Calvino, 12 and Masa, 10, also took an early interest in chess.

“It started when Calvino was beginning kindergarten at Mirowitz,” said Amy Hammerman. “We got all the information on extracurricular activities, and chess was one of the choices. We thought Calvino might enjoy it and we started him with Aleksey Kazakevich for private lessons, and he immediately enjoyed it and eventually joined the chess club at school.”

Hammerman’s younger son Masa started taking lessons with Kazakevich when he was about 4 years old. 

Many St. Louis area kids learned to play chess from Kazakevich, whose father taught him the game when Aleksey was four years old. Kazakevich immigrated to the United States from Russia 22 years ago with his family.

“When I was in graduate school, another chess instructor needed an assistant for one of his classes and I said I could do it,” Kazakevich said. “I’ve been teaching for 12 years now. I used to teach history and chess but now it’s just chess.”

In addition to private lessons, Kazakevich has taught chess at Saul Mirowitz School, Torah Prep School, H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy and Ladue Middle School. This year, most in-person classes are cancelled, so Kazakevich has gone online, using Zoom where he’s been teaching about 30 lessons a week.

The 35-year-old Kazakevich said he’s too old to try to achieve grandmaster status, but he gets a special sense of accomplishment from teaching young students.

“It’s a sense of pride,” he said. “I can live vicariously through them. One of the kids I taught became a Missouri high school champion.”

Children who learn chess at an early age will benefit from the experience, even if they don’t become champions, according to Susan Polgar.

“Chess develops a lot of important and valuable life skills, including being able to focus, being able to plan ahead, assess the situation as objectively as you can and make decisions based on the assessment,” Polgar said. “There’s also time management and countless life skills that are transferrable. The skills learned through chess can be very beneficial.”

Amy Hammerman said there are many nuances of the game that enhance early childhood development.

“Chess has been a great way to exercise that part of their brain that can analyze and develop strategy,” she said. “It’s developed the ability for them to lose gracefully and to develop perseverance, and that is due in part to Aleksey. He says don’t get discouraged if you lose; the only way you get better is if you play someone who is better than you.

“I think that is a really important characteristic to develop even as an adult, the ability to accept loss, do it gracefully and also not be deterred and learn from the experience. That has been one of the main positives.”

The chess kids who begin playing early may find the skills they learned beneficial in their education and life, according to Howard Granok, chess coach at Crossroads College Prep.

”I’ve had some students who didn’t succeed as well in school initially but being successful at chess, that was an avenue into knowing they could be successful and raise the level of their academics as well,” Granok said. “It definitely teaches planning and patience and having consequences to your decisions in a way that’s not catastrophic for your life, but if you make a bad move or a wrong move, your opponent will exploit it.”

Sign up for Your Morning Light