Priest encourages students to take up chess
ERIN ANDERSEN, Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN, Neb. | As a kid, Father Brian Connor gave up on chess after consistently losing to his brother and two cousins.

But seven years ago, the priest at North American Martyrs Catholic Church and School returned to the chess table alongside the late Lincoln chess guru Gary Marks.

He found it to be a great hobby.

“Something you can do anywhere. Something you can always learn more about. . It’s a humbling but amazingly complex game,” Connor told the Lincoln Journal Star.

And although Connor now whips his brother and cousins at chess, he’s finding his biggest challenges come from the littlest players — third-graders at his Highlands parochial school.

Connor started the school Chess Club six years ago, thinking it would be a good opportunity to help kids hone their critical and creative-thinking skills as well as provide an after-school outlet for youngsters.

Today, those kids are national contenders, and two third-graders — Jacey Tran and Justin Kerkman — are proving to those much older than they that these chess rookies are no mere pawns.

The NAM chess club has earned four state titles in four years.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Connor and Justin Kerkman, 9, sat face to face in what the priest jokingly referred to as “a grudge match.” One week earlier, Justin had beat his mentor, but not this time around, vowed Connor.

The North American Martyrs Chess Club boasts about 90 members — about 70 of those are relative newbies to the game, and generally in first through third grades — the club refers to them as Pawns and Knights (intermediate players).

The 20 older, experienced and downright gifted players make up the Rooks.

The club meets Mondays and Wednesdays for one hour. The first 30 minutes is devoted to instruction. The last 30 minutes is game on.

Saturday, the school hosts the Nebraska State Chess Association’s Scholastic Individual Championship. About 50 players, kindergarten through high school, from across Nebraska will compete for state titles.

“The first time I played I got a headache,” Connor recalled of his return to the game in 2007. “After that went away, I realized I was working a different part of the brain that I hadn’t been working very hard.”

He’s half-joking.

But the truth is, chess has helped student players academically and socially — and they are the first to admit it.

“Chess helps me focus,” said Jasper Burress. The 11-year-old is dead serious, explaining that he has always struggled to concentrate and stay on task.

“Chess helps me learn more in school,” said 10-year-old Danny Le. “It really helps me study math and science.”

The hardest part is anticipating your opponent’s next move, Danny said.

Cole Hardy, 10, said his biggest challenge is patience.

“You try to see if there is a new opportunity. You just want him (opponent) to get it over with, so you can make the really good move,” said Cole, a fourth-grader.

Zach Kerkman, big brother to Justin, was among the first NAM students to join the chess club.

“It definitely helps you strategize and plan things before you do anything. . It helps with memory and strategy. It helps me with logic,” said Zach, 13.

“I never used to be able to concentrate when I was a kid,” the eighth-grader confessed. “Now I find myself thinking in chess terms.”

Prior to last year, Jacey Tran had never heard of chess — let alone played it. Her mother encouraged her to give it a try.

Jacey was a natural. She quickly rose from Pawn to Rook. Today, she is the only girl in the advanced players group — and the only NAM player to compete in the 2013 national chess tournament held last spring in Madison, Wis. The then-second-grader was pitted against high school students.

How does all this attention make her feel?

She shrugs her shoulders and smiles: “I feel shy.”

In addition to the school club, she works with a chess tutor on Saturdays.

“Chess is a fun game,” she said. “I would rather play chess than sit at home and watch TV.”

Danny Le is Jacey’s cousin. The two play chess a lot.

“It makes you smart,” Danny said. “Because you might beat an eighth-grader or a high schooler — and that makes you feel like you are very good.”

Father Connor wishes more schools fielded chess teams; right now only 50 Nebraska schools compete.

“It’s a great game for schools,” Connor said. “It’s so easy to do, and the kids really enjoy it.”

“It benefits them socially, academically interpersonally,” Connor said.

It’s a skill with lifelong implications.

“I play 80-year-olds and 8-year-olds. In chess there is no discrimination between age, gender, socioeconomic status or the color of your skin — chess is for everyone,” he said.

Win or lose, you come out ahead, Connor said, repeating the mantra he often tells his students: “When you lose, you will learn something. If you’re not losing, then you’re not improving.”

As the Wednesday grudge match reached its conclusion, it was 9-year-old Justin’s turn to learn something new.


Chess Daily News from Susan Polgar
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