By Nick Madigan Sun reporter
May 19, 2008
Three years ago, they didn’t know a pawn from a rook.”This is a chessboard,” Daniel Katz recalled saying to his pupils on the first day of class, in 2005, at Cross Country Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore.
Since then, the kids, most of them recruited for the embryonic chess club because of their math skills, have taken on established challengers from across the country, won trophies and sometimes astonished even their teacher. A few have beaten private-school students who have one-on-one tutorials in the game.
Most importantly, they’ve stayed out of trouble.
“I’ve seen them learn, and I’ve seen them grow, to go from knowing nothing to competing,” Katz said on a recent afternoon, as his 10 charges squared off in pairs during a sometimes raucous practice session for their first appearance at a national tournament in Pittsburgh.
“I like winning,” said a gum-chewing Devon Campbell, 10, a player with a cache of chess trophies at home.
“Before a match, I feel nervous and my hands shake, and it gives me a fuzzy feeling. But once I start playing, I memorize the board and watch my opponent’s moves, and the shakiness goes away. It’s like a vampire in the night – all I see is the chessboard.”
There are about 1,200 students playing chess in 60 Baltimore public schools, a fact unheralded amid systemwide violence, truancy and academic failure.
“We don’t have a lot of success stories,” said Steve Alpern, who directs the city schools’ chess league.
“There aren’t too many things that distinguish this school system, but I would put this program against any elementary-school chess program in the states.”
The Baltimore Kids Chess League started just four years ago in 20 schools, most of them elementary, and has seen almost explosive growth. The chess clubs, which got started with help from the Abell Foundation and the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, meet once or twice a week, usually after classes.
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