Chess Mates: U.Va. Students Teach Local School Kids Finer Points of the Game

e4. Checking. Castling. Kings and queens. Knights and pawns. These are all terms that will soon be second nature to local elementary students, thanks to an after-school program in which University of Virginia students participate.

Members of the U.Va. Chess Club meet with students half their age every week to teach them the finer points of the game. They coordinate their efforts through the Albemarle County/Charlottesville City Chess Education and Active Chess Education for Students, or Playing ACES.

Local chess enthusiast Nate Szejniuk founded Playing ACES in 2008 in hopes of reorganizing local area chess programs. While pursuing a master's in teaching from Liberty University, he researched the correlation between chess education and academic and career success. He discovered that organized chess education programs help students develop critical thinking skills, sportsmanship and strategic planning abilities. In fact, according to Szejniuk, both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison played chess extensively throughout their lives.

Szejniuk, who has played chess since age 4, entered the local chess community when his grandson attended Stone-Robinson Elementary School in Albemarle County, where Szejniuk helped revitalize the chess club as part of the school's after-school program. From there, Szejniuk decided to go a step further and create Playing ACES.

In early January, Szejniuk approached Diran Adalian, a third-year civil engineering student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and president of U.Va.'s Chess Club, about partnering with Playing ACES. Five to 10 U.Va. students volunteer for 10 to 20 hours every week with the program. Participating students will qualify to become U.S. Chess Federation level-1 chess coaches.

Adalian said he looks forward to teaching the children all he has learned from chess, such as how to interact with multiple factors, dealing with losing and winning, and leadership skills. More than anything though, Adalian wants to transfer to the students his love for the game. "I love chess because it's an enjoyable mental challenge – a boxing match of purely brains, if you will," he said. "It forces you to examine every situation to find the best solution and it teaches you to trust your calculations, while trying to predict what might happen."

Szejniuk also hopes that the younger players will see how chess taught the U.Va. students the skills necessary to pursue excellence in college. "U.Va. students who are not too removed in age can inspire area K-12 students, teaching them to have fun playing the game and pointing out how chess has impacted their career choice," he said.

Gregory Dorsey, a third-year astrophysics major in the College of Arts & Sciences who has been playing chess since age 8, started volunteering with Playing ACES in early February. He said he believes chess can help students learn how to quickly and efficiently break down complex problems into smaller steps, thus improving their analytical thinking and learning speed.

Additionally, Dorsey sees chess as a game that develops academic talents in a fun, engaging way. At the same time, the game boosts students' confidence. "We want kids to get excited about learning and enriching their lives," Dorsey said.

Since 2008, Playing ACES students have played 218 tournament games against other area programs, winning or drawing 64.7 percent of their games. This school year, about 50 students are playing chess at Stone-Robinson, Agnor-Hurt Elementary School and Jackson P. Burley Middle School.

Playing ACES will host a tournament March 17 on Grounds. Chess players from local schools and home schools will be invited to play.

– by Lisa Littman