Rooks & knights in friendly fights at P.S. 89


By Julie Shapiro

Spencer Ha hovered over a chessboard in P.S. 89’s cafeteria, drumming his fingers lightly on the table while weighing his next move.

It didn’t take him long to decide. Spencer, 8, picked up his queen and set it down partway across the board. Then he stood up, slid several steps to his right, and sat down before another board, where another opponent waited.

“My turn?” he asked, then made his move. “Check!”

Spencer’s opponents were his fellow P.S. 89 students, gathered in the cafeteria before school for the chess lessons and games that have become a daily ritual. Spencer’s mother, Elizabeth Chew, started the club informally two years ago when her casual games with Spencer started attracting a circle of kids eager to learn.

Now, every one of Chew’s 13 chessboards is in high demand each morning, as children who have only just learned to read try their hand at a game that intrigues adults from around the world. Last fall, the P.T.A. hired Sherif El Assiouti, an Egyptian chess master, to teach the kids once a week, and now they are winning and placing in competitions against the city’s elite public and private elementary schools.

“It doesn’t matter what age you are as long as you play and play tough,” Chew said above the din in P.S. 89’s cafeteria.

Spencer learned just how tough some of the other kids could play when he took on six of them at once on a recent morning. Chew thought it would be a good challenge for Spencer, and it also made his opponents happy because they usually fight over the chance to play against one of the school’s best players.

Within 20 minutes, Spencer had defeated five of his six opponents and settled, a bit breathless, in front of the last holdout: Yuri, a 6-year-old blond boy who wasn’t sure how to spell his last name.

“It’s never going to end!” Yuri shouted gleefully as he surveyed the barren board. He had only his king left, and Spencer was down to a king and a pawn.

But Spencer soon worked his pawn to Yuri’s side of the board and exchanged it for the queen he had sacrificed earlier. With a king and a queen at his disposal, Spencer backed Yuri into a corner and soon uttered, “Checkmate!”

“You really feel the power when you win,” said Spencer, flushed and grinning. “I feel pretty cool when I beat them all.”

Spencer said it was fun to play against his less experienced classmates, because they will continue fighting for a draw even if they realize they aren’t able to win. Spencer always thinks at least four moves ahead when he plays.

“I need to be very fast and set up each position in my brain very fast,” he said.

Spencer hopes to become a chess master someday, his mother said.

In February, Spencer took second place at the championship level of a tournament at The Browning School, where he also competed against kids from Dalton, Horace Mann and NEST. At the same competition, but one level lower, P.S. 89 student Advay Sriram took third place.

P.S. 89 also competed at P.S. 116 last month, where the K-1 students took first place out of 11 teams. Other P.S. 89 players, including Spencer, placed in other contests.

The next tournament is on April 26, also at P.S. 116. Chew wants to raise money to send the kids to state and national competitions, which have higher entry fees.

Spencer credits his success with his daily tactics practice. Then, just to make sure he was being understood, he explained, “Tactics means strategizing to trick your opponent.”

As the children dueled on a recent morning, their parents watched and chatted about the benefits of the program.

“It’s wonderful,” said Jen Heiss, mother of 8-year-old Julia. “My daughter really blossomed since the beginning. Her analytical skills have gotten sharper.”

Heiss also likes that the students learn to cheer each other on at tournaments, even though chess is an individual sport.

At a nearby table, Julia was playing against Noah, a first grader. Julia and Noah played quietly, Julia moving her pink headband back and forth as she weighed moves. Then Julia moved her rook to knock out Noah’s queen, and Noah cried out, “Oh, I lost my queen!” But he recovered and quickly retaliated by taking Julia’s rook.

“I like chess a lot,” Julia said. “It makes you think more.”

Jean Lee Yamner, Noah’s mother, said Noah seemed to learn chess overnight.

“He was just observing, and the next thing you know he mastered all the moves,” she said.

While the children take the matches seriously, they also are eager to help each other learn the game. Sitting across from each other on a recent morning were two first graders: Angelo, who has been playing for several months, and Mack, who is just learning. Angelo often moved Mack’s pieces for him, or showed him the different options the knight had in selecting a space.

“It’s fantastic,” said Ralph Orciuoli, Angelo’s father, as he watched the boys play. “It’s constructive. It’s better than playing video games.”

Orciuoli has started playing with Angelo at home, and when he handicaps himself by taking several pieces away, Angelo beats him. Slowly, Orciuoli is adding pieces back to the game.

Maryl Hallett, Mack’s mother, is glad her son is learning the real rules to the game after pretending to play by making up his own.

Also watching the game were two preschool girls, Angelo and Mack’s younger sisters. Wide-eyed and intent, they sat without moving while their brothers played, which Hallett said was a good lesson in patience.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Mack said after Angelo won. “It’s really fun to move the chess pieces and steal others.”

Mack added that it was hard to always play against kids who are better than him. But, he added with a smile, “When I play with my sister, she knows even less so I eventually beat her.”