In Levittown, grand masters in the making

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The future grand masters gathered in a brightly lit classroom at East Broadway Elementary School in Levittown on Jan. 31 to receive instructions from school psychologist and chess club adviser Dr. Leigh Rust. After pairing off, the fourth- and fifth-graders reached across their chess boards, solemnly shook their opponents’ hands and began the timeless series of opening moves that have characterized the game for more than a millennium.

Rust said he was glad to accept the challenge of advising the group five years ago, because “it made it easier to overcome some of the stigma of being the school’s psychologist.” He reasoned that if students met him in the less-charged atmosphere of after-school activities, it would be easier to connect when they came to him with a problem.

Before Rust became the group’s adviser, parents were tutoring the students. Since he took over, the group has grown from 12 to around 30 — “That’s the most I can handle at a time,” he said — and Rust is assisted by the school’s social worker, Danielle Pantileska, and two former club members who are now students at Jonas E. Salk Middle School, Joe Healy and David Silberger.

The day’s play was billed as a tournament, but Rust stressed that students were playing for fun. Although he teaches the fundamentals of the game, he is not looking for budding Boris Spasskys or Bobby Fischers.

The club meets for three months each year. The first month is given over to training. “I give them a packet, and they can practice the procedures online,” Rust said. Students register at Chesskid.com, a website that offers tutorials on such subjects as “Bad Bishops” and “Queen Endings.”

In the second month, the focus is on tournament play. Rust simply calls the third month “March Madness.” Students top off the year with a pizza party.

Chess helps strengthen what Rust termed “executive function” — the part of the brain that plans, sets goals and generally gets things done. Chess taps all such executive skills. “That’s the cognitive take-away,” he said.

Children with learning deficits, such as ADHD, have issues with executive function, according to a study in the International Journal of Educational Investigations. Chess requires players to plan long-term strategies leading to checkmate, but it also requires them to pay attention to details, such as their opponents’ latest moves or the position of their pieces on the board. The game can help students improve their performance in subjects as varied as math and reading, the study showed.

On Jan. 31, students played two games. Class rules included shaking hands before each match, raising their hands if they thought they had checkmated their opponents, and “keeping the volume to an acceptable level.” Players were also forbidden from assisting one another.

The students seemed to have mastered the complex ways various pieces can move. One player, Emma Levy, even executed an ambitious move known as a queen’s-side castle. Otherwise, most players’ strategies appeared to consist of capturing as many of their opponents’ pieces as possible in a style of play best described as aggressive. Students who exhibited good behavior could win magic pieces — extra pawns or rooks.

Rust said the club was a great leveler. “You have kids who are at the top of their class and kids who aren’t doing as well. Here, it doesn’t matter. They all just come together and play.”

Mackenzie Cottage, 10, said she definitely wanted to play in next year’s tournaments, and her opponent for one of the afternoon’s matches, Meghan Gorey, said she wanted to teach her family to play. “Nobody knows how,” she said.

Some students were more serious that others, although a competitive air was discernible in each afternoon’s matches. Raj Singh and Ben Rahner, both 9, had finished their game before their board could be photographed. They quickly put their pieces back on the board from memory to show how Raj had checkmated a crestfallen Ben.

They both said they wanted to continue playing after they left the club. Raj said he had learned the game at home, where his father also plays.