Classroom chess players make early moves

After his first three moves on Monday, Max Totten, Palm Crest Elementary School’s top chess player, was sure he had vanquished his opponent.

“I thought I was winning,” the fifth-grader said. “Then she came up with a checkmate.”

Max, 10, should feel no shame. The player sitting on the other side of the chessboard in the Palm Crest Elementary multipurpose room was Ruth Haring, president of the United States Chess Federation and an international chess master.

“He’s smart,” Haring said of Totten. “He offered to take a draw before he resigned.”

Haring’s visit came courtesy of the California Youth Chess League, which started working with Palm Crest students seven years ago.

She and youth chess league founder Jay Stallings touted the academic, strategic and leadership lessons that chess players learn by studying the ancient game of knights, castles, kings and queens. Players face a nearly infinite set of possibilities with each match and must use critical thinking, abstract reasoning, math skills and their competitive instincts to come out ahead.

“Every game you’re solving hundreds of problems,” Stallings said. “They become problem solvers. I tell my students, ‘Chess players don’t whine about problems, they solve problems.’”

“A lot of young chess players will grow up to be CEOs because they know how to make decisions,” Haring said.

Stallings, ranked as an expert by the U.S. Chess Federation, founded the league in 1996 and brought it to Palm Crest Elementary seven years ago. He is also a teacher at Foothill Progressive Montessori School in La Cañada.

He, Haring and others involved with the federation are chess evangelists who have immersed themselves in the game. Haring is a Chico resident who won her International Woman Master title in 1975, when she was 20. She is married to Canadian chess grandmaster Peter Biyiasas.

Robert McLellan, the U.S. Chess Federation’s marketing director, who accompanied Haring on Monday, is the executive producer of a documentary called “Brooklyn Castle,” which shows how chess transformed the lives of students at a New York school. The film hits theaters on Oct. 26.

At Palm Crest, members of the chess club gather once a week after school during the 11-week league sessions. They have played tournaments in Ventura and Orange counties as well as in Santa Clarita, where most of the league’s 24 teams are based.

The participants may not see all the benefits of the game.

“What could you possibly learn in chess that you can’t learn in science?” Max asked.

But his numerous tournament trophies and solid report cards paint a clear picture: His once-a-week pastime is helping him succeed.

Max, who joined the league when he was in kindergarten, said it is not all about the game.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if my friends weren’t here,” he said.

While he enjoys the challenge and camaraderie of chess, Max has his sights set on something more mainstream.

“I want to do something involving the NFL. Player, coach, announcer, water boy — I just want to go to the games.”

Stallings emphasized that people don’t have to be strong or fast to be good at chess. They have to be patient, think things through and grasp all the possibilities.

“Whether you’re young or old, 5’3” or 6’3” — all that goes out the window,” he said. “It’s black and white, just like the pieces on the board.”

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