Every Tuesday, Alexander Thompson, director of tournaments at Chess At Three, meets with students at the Spuyten Duyvil Preschool in Kingsbridge. He tells them stories with characters who have names like “King Chompers”—the white king piece who eats so much that he has a big belly and can only move one square on the board per turn.
The stories, Thompson says, are to teach students about the chess pieces and how they move on the board. At a weekly class earlier this month, students were learning about strategy.
“Does anyone remember what our first secret mission is?” Thompson asked his students, and then offered a hint: “Remember our rhyme.”
The group of nine students recited in unison, “First secret mission: get your pieces in the kitchen…”
“Where’s the kitchen?” Thompson said.
“In the middle of the chess board,” one student said with excitement.
“Right here,” another said, pointing to the middle of the board that was sitting on the floor.
Chess has been part of the preschool’s curriculum for five years.
“I think it’s a fantastic thing to be able to offer at such a young age,” said Amy Harlow, whose 4-year-old daughter Jacqueline is in the class. “I just think that it’s great that she is learning chess and using parts of her brain that chess demands of you. I don’t even know how to play chess, so she was teaching me… how to set it up and how…each of the pieces move.”
The preschool recently had to re-organize its classes, as it struggled through a labyrinth of rules set by the departments of Building, Education and Health.
Restrictions on class sizes and accusations of over-enrollment forced the school to create an additional pre-K class and hire a new teacher. The extra expense ran up to $13,000, which the school is still trying to cover, but its signature program, Chess at Three, will remain in place, Judith Menken, the preschool’s directors, said.
Jacqueline, the 4-year-old chess player, said she enjoys the game and her favorite piece is the knight because she likes horses.
“I like to move the horses. Gallop, gallop, step to the side,” she said, reciting the rhyme she learned in class on how the knight moves across the chessboard.
Patricia Soares, another parent, said she bought a set so her daughter Chloe can play with her older brother, who also learned to play chess when he was a student at the preschool.
“I’m happy. I like it. It’s a compliment for the school,” Soares said. And Chloe? “She loves it,” Soares said.
Parent Allison Hooban said that she likes the way the program relies on stories to teach students about the game. So far, her daughter Beatrice has learned about the pieces and how they move on the board.
“It’s wonderful. It was a just a nice thing we found out about after we enrolled her here,” Hooban said.
Beatrice also approves: “It’s good,” she said.
Judith Menken, the preschool’s director, said the children “are learning chess but there is so much more. It’s the language. The storytelling.”
The list goes on: “The math of it. All of [the]…jumping over and sideways…The strategy. The processing. The waiting your turn. That you are all part of a group,” Menken said.
Preschoolers are divided into groups of nine students and meet with Thompson for 30 minutes. They learn a new story each week about the pieces and their moves on the chessboard. Each student gets a turn to demonstrate what they learned on the large chessboard, which sits on the floor.
“I like the small group of it. I like the coziness. I like the content that they are getting….We’ve seen children who really excel at getting it that have not shown a particular light anywhere else,” Menken said.
The principal said she and her staff realized that students enjoyed learning the game because none of them asked to go to the bathroom during the lessons.
“If you are doing something with kids, and five of them have to go to the bathroom, you know it’s not working. It’s time to wrap this up. ‘Cause when it’s working, nobody wants to go,” Menken said.
Thompson said that by the of the school year, students would be able to play a “competent and rule-savvy game of chess.”
“They’ll know an opening. They will know what check and checkmate mean and they will be able to sit down and play a game of chess with an adult and know how the pieces move and what their objectives are,” said Thompson. Watching the progress of students over the school year was his favorite part of teaching the course, he said.
According to Andrew Kashian, co-owner of Chess At Three, the Spuyten Duyvil Preschool is the only school in the northwest Bronx that offers this program.
In the classroom, Thompson had a new question for his students: “What happens in the middle of our chessboard?” he said. “Our pieces are…”
“Strong,” 4-year-olds answered, completing the sentence. “Our pieces are strong,” they repeated in unison.