RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Every week more than a thousand students at elementary schools throughout Albuquerque and Rio Rancho sit up straight, close their eyes and remain silent for a whole minute.
Sound amazing? It’s the mindfulness exercise that kicks off the 75-minute weekly after-school chess club session where kids learn the moves, vocabulary and strategy that make up what Victor Lopez calls “a thinking game.”
Lopez is founder and executive director of the nonprofit Learners Chess Academy, which started in 2010 and now has 44 chess clubs at public, private and charter elementary schools in Albuquerque, the East Mountains and Rio Rancho.
At Alvarado Elementary School in the North Valley, two dozen kids from first through fifth grade rush in, dump their backpacks and excitedly sit down at tables facing each other across plastic mat chess boards.
Lopez leads them through the mindfulness exercise to calm them.
He then goes over “chess etiquette,” showing them how they should shake hands and say “good luck” before starting a game and repeat the handshake afterward, saying “good game.”
Then he asks a few questions about play. “Should you move your piece the farthest it can go – no, always look around and consider your options,” Lopez says. “We want you to be really good thinkers.”
‘Focus very well’
When play gets under way, assistant coaches Doug Thigpen and Calvin Cox move around the tables, spending time with players, teaching and challenging the kids to explain their moves. They learn names of chess moves like “skewer” and “fork.”
Kids also work on visual puzzles that ask what moves they should make in a given situation. Correct answers earn them the chance to win a colored plastic chess piece as a prize.
Some of the kids are complete novices at the game. Others have gained experience playing at home or have attended one of the camps Learners Chess Academy holds on school in-service days, spring break or during the summer.
Daphne Barrett has three children in the Alvarado club.
“They’re excited about it, which is so great,” Barrett said.
Second-grader Jackson Tomingas, 8, plays with family members. He likes chess because “it calms me down. You feel like you’re the boss of a kingdom. You have to focus very well,” he said.
Six-year-old Belle Hughson plays in the Alvarado school chess club and on weekends with her dad.
“The thing I love about it is it’s entertaining and it calms me. It’s a good thing to help me get smarter,” Hughson said.
‘Win … in life’
Several studies, including one by J. P. Smith and B.N. Cage in 2000, have indicated a link between learning chess and improvement in mathematics, spatial analysis and critical thinking. Lopez said he and the other coaches also use chess as a way to develop leadership qualities.
“We have produced state champions and some of our students play in national tournaments but our focus is about much more than teaching our students to win at chess,” Lopez said. “We want to see them win in the classroom and in life.”
Middle school and high school students who have become proficient in the game help coach younger children in the chess clubs at some schools, Lopez said.
Learners Chess clubs are mostly funded through fees charged to parents of participating children, which range from $75 to $105, depending on the school. At some locations, the cost is covered through grants and donations, Lopez said.