Chess Sees Resurgence in St. Louis City Schools
Click. Click. Click. Almost 150 children ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade gathered in the McKinley Classical Leadership Academy cafeteria for a tournament, but it sounded more like pre-school naptime. Except for the clicks—the methodical sound of chess clocks being punched as each player completed their move—the large room was silent.
Chess takes a lot of focus, and these students were competing in the Red Rook Tournament. The tournament, founded by a former chess coach eight years ago, takes place throughout November and December and offers a welcoming opportunity for new and seasoned chess players alike. Now, Jay Brieler, coach at Grand Center Arts Academy (GCAA) and Metro Academic and Classical High School, organizes the event.
According to Brieler, though, this is only one of many chess opportunities available in St. Louis city schools.
“There’s a lot of energy in the city in general with chess right now, and I think it’s spreading,” he said.
This isn’t entirely new, though. Many city schools have been long-time contenders in both regional and national chess competitions.
“Certainly, the city schools have been very competitive,” Brieler said. “Kennard places at state frequently, and Metro won two years ago. There have been a group of parents who have made sure that the training at the public schools is still very good.”
Along with Kennard CJA and Metro High, schools with a consistently strong chess club include McKinley CJA and CLA, New City School and Crossroads College Preparatory. He described other programs, though, as spotty.
This is not unique to the City of St. Louis. Because chess is not sponsored by MSHSAA (Missouri State High School Activities Association), schools are not required to pay coaches. This leads to little long-term investment.
“Either a single [parent] or group of parents will give energy to a club,” said Brieler, who himself started his coaching at New City when his children attended there. “The club will pop up and flourish for a while. As those kids graduate, sometimes people will pick up [the club] and sometimes they won’t.”
This is beginning to change, though. Last year, DESE (Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) made chess an official sport, which means students can now letter in chess and the Catholic Youth Council even includes it in their CYC Sports options.
“At both schools where I coach there is now a teacher sponsor to anchor the school a little better. I hope this will add some continuity,” Brieler said.
“It’s certainly gotten tougher,” Howard Granok, Crossroads chess coach, said. “There’s an untapped market, and more and more schools are starting to show interest. Students don’t really learn by playing the same people all of the time, so the more schools, the better.”
As home to the U.S. Chess Championship, the World Chess Hall Fame, the country’s No. 1 ranked player — Hikaru Nakamura, and the nation’s top collegiate chess team at Webster University, St. Louis has a strong chess scene and youth do well in national tournaments. Parents who have long been a part of the community have no problem finding support and opportunities for their children. However, those who have little background or knowledge of the game might feel unsure about where to start.
“Get involved at your child’s school and help find a dedicated sponsor,” Granok said. “Find a way to finagle money for faculty, so they can pay a coach. Most schools don’t have the resources, especially to travel, so parents are important.”
According to Brieler, there are also many opportunities outside of school. For example, there is a Gateway Chess League that has been in place for a long time that conducts tournaments in the metro area. Any student can enter even as an individual. In fact, many of the players are home-schooled.
“The beautiful thing about chess is that anybody can sit across from anybody and the moves do the talking for you,” said Brieler. “Even the most timid looking girl might play an aggressive game of chess.”
Both Brieler and Granok said they are excited about the changes happening in St. Louis City and the country. This includes a more accepting culture of chess, more schools with teams and more girls involved in the sport.
“Last year at GCAA our team was at least 2/3rds girls and we placed in almost every tournament we played,” Brieler said. “I don’t know if this has ever happened with a girl-dominated team, especially from an arts school.”
Granok said this is important because chess provides many academic and social benefits.
“I’ve seen chess really turn a kid around. Students who struggle academically, it gives them something positive, a way to succeed,” he said.
And, the best part for parents: compared to many other sports and activities, chess is cheap. As Granok put it, “just a couple of boards and you’re off.”
This, along with high-profile documentaries and books, including Brooklyn Castle and How Children Succeed, has led to a popularity boom for the sport, particularly in urban schools. In fact, in the tight-knit community of chess, it becomes somewhat of a recruitment tool.
“There was one student who came to GCAA and was a strong [chess] player,” Brieler said. “We knew we’d have a good team, so then my daughter came here and another chess family.”
This creates a fun environment, Brieler said, because newer programs have high school rookies playing alongside students who have been competitive in the game for half of their life.
Although results for this year are not posted yet, the diversity of chess in St. Louis City is evidenced by last year’s Red Rook standings. Schools in the top three spots ranged from traditional public schools (Kennard and McKinley CJA) to charter schools (GCAA) to independent schools (Crossroads and New City School), with a few surprises (Dunbar Elementary) sneaking towards the lead.
If you’re interested in learning more about chess opportunities in the City of St. Louis, the St. Louis Chess Club is a good source of information. Also, check out this article about the recent Sinquefield Cup held in St. Louis.
If you want to recommend a school with a strong chess club, please leave your comments below!