Last July the Eltaib family moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to St. Johnsbury, having heard of the educational opportunities at the Academy and the welcoming community here. Their son Ahmed would be a freshman in the fall, and he enrolled in Operation Creation to gain familiarity with the school and with some of his new classmates. As Sudanese refugees (Ahmed’s father Aamir is from Darfur), the family relied on the goodness of several local families to help them get established and oriented in their new community, pointing them to the opportunities St. Johnsbury offered. As Ahmed searched for his place and for a passion to pursue, he relied on the advice of mentors and sought out new opportunities as well. In doing so, he found a new interest—chess. And now he is part of a state championship team, as our Chess team repeated as Vermont State Scholastic Chess Champions last week.
This team, through the coaching and encouragement of Chess Club moderator Ty Hartshorn, is just the tip of an excellent extracurricular activity that provides students like Ahmed a boost in their academic success. Educational psychologist Stuart Marguiles and elementary school teacher James Liptrap conducted separate but similar studies in the late 1990’s that showed students who played chess performed significantly better in reading and math than those who did not play chess. They are just two of many who recognize the educational benefits of the game. As Wendy Fischer wrote on the Johns Hopkins School of Education website, “It’s not about Kings, Queens, and Rooks, but rather, quadrants and coordinates, thinking strategically and foreseeing consequences. It’s about lines and angles, weighing options and making decisions.”
Coach Hartshorn agrees and sees even more benefits:
It is relevant to learning in the 21st century because it forces a continuity of thought and punishes impulsive thinking. My favorite mantras in chess are "Think hard, think twice", "If you find a good move, find a better one", and "Don't just do something, sit there". As competitive as chess is, my hope is that it teaches empathy. The most important question to reflect upon is “why did my opponent do that?”. If you don't answer this question first, quite often your own attack and plans are stymied. Add a clock in, and now efficiency of thought is required.
This last piece about empathy is especially important in a club as diverse as ours. The club is an evenly mixed group of day students and dorm students, domestic students and international students, and students from all classes. The championship team—made up of Ahmed (grade 9 from Sudan, now living in St. Johnsbury), Zachary Anti (grade 10 from Waterford), (Sergio Sastre-Salgado (grade 11 from Spain), Joseph Vineyard (grade 11 from Danville), and Yunuo “Henry” Xie (grade 11 from China)—is a good representation of the club’s diversity. Learning how to seek understanding and appreciate different perspectives in a multicultural environment is essential, and chess helps students build those critical skills.
The club is often the first opportunity students have to play chess in their lives, and for some like Ahmed, the first extracurricular activity they have ever joined. For some it becomes a passion. Sergio Sastre-Salgado read three chess books this year, completed hundreds of chess problems both from the books and online, and has hired a grandmaster for additional lessons. The more he learns, the more amazed he is with the complexity of the game and his ability to see it with a higher thought process. He hopes to be individual state champion next year. Henry Xie also has had a transformative year. Knowing Chinese Chess, he joined the club with an excellent ability to calculate and a strong end game. He played the highest-rated player in the state in the first round of the tournament and almost pulled off the upset. The team’s highest scorer was Joseph Vineyard who placed fifth in the state (the highest finish in school history!), leading the team to a one-point victory.
In a year chock full of championships, we could easily overlook this back-to-back championship performance. Chess is quiet and happens without much hoopla. The development of professional chess may build its popularity, and it is already gaining fans around the world. That is a good thing, for as our Chess Club has shown, not only does it build stronger minds, but stronger hearts and communities too.