Fifth-graders Leeander Ragland and Steven Brooks sat facing each other during a class lesson at their District school, fixated on their schoolwork. The assignment? Playing chess.
Whittier Elementary is one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of schools in the United States where chess is being taught to kids.
Teachers and students say chess teaches patience, concentration and how to follow rules. Players also learn that they must think ahead or risk losing badly. Kids say they like the game because there is no luck involved. No spinning dice. No picking cards. It's all about how well they plan moves.
"If you make a bad move, you suffer because your piece gets taken away. But if you make the right move you are happy," said Veronica Morris, 11. "And that's the same thing in life. Because if you make the wrong move in life or open the wrong door then you suffer. But if you make the right move or open the right door and think before you do it, then you will be really happy."
At Whittier, chess is taught once a week to the entire fifth grade. Teachers Harry Hughs, Sanjay Singh and Ruth Turay said they have seen math scores improve since the kids have started learning to play chess. And they said that some kids are behaving better in class since they took up chess. That's what Leeander said happened to him.
"I used to be bad in school," he said. "When I started playing chess I started being obedient and quiet. Chess helped teach me how to do that."
The chess instructor is Douglas Goralski, called Mr. G., who works with the nonprofit U.S. Chess Center in the District. He teaches at a number of schools, and said he sees the same reactions everywhere:
Kids who usually have a hard time not talking, they stay quiet during chess -- because they have to. Kids who can't sit still, stay still. Kids who usually act without thinking take time to plan their next moves.
"I concentrate better in math now," said Michael Conry, 9, a student in Goralski's weekly sessions at J.F. Oyster Bilingual Elementary in the District. "Now I know how to take my time doing things."
Whittier's Chidi Agbaeroneke, 11, said chess has taught him to think about "other possibilities to figure out answers to questions" in math, and has helped improve his reading.
Goralski said he has a lot of fun teaching chess, especially with some of the more unusual lessons. One day this spring in an Oyster fifth grade, he began his lesson this way:
"Is it okay to cheat?" he asked.
"No," came the loud answer from the kids.
"Is it okay to be rude?" he asked, drawing another round of no's.
"Is it okay to be sneaky?" At first, he heard a few no's. But suddenly, everybody shouted "Yes! Yes!"
"You have to be a little sneaky!" he said, smiling.
Goralski said that many kids may think that the game is too hard for them to learn, but they are wrong. Anybody can learn, he said.
"At first it was hard and I didn't know if I could play," said Iris Campos, 10, a J.F. Oyster student. "But I got used to it."
Some become really good at the game.
One day last fall at Whittier, Steven Brooks's grandfather suddenly appeared in one of Goralski's chess classes. He wanted to know what Steven was being taught, because the grandfather could no longer beat him. Steven said he is still playing his grandfather -- and still beating him.
-- Valerie Strauss