By: Will Siss
NAUGATUCK -- Mark Vella relies on his knights. Tyler Lillo puts faith in his rooks.
The Salem Elementary School fourth-graders have been developing chess strategies for two months in an after-school program. Now that they and 10 classmates have mastered the basics, they've started a tournament that ends with the winner taking on Principal Jennifer Kluge.
"My dad taught me chess when I was really young, but it faded away," Mark said Friday during a special school-day session. "I've learned some new moves."
Mark said that concentration is the key ingredient when playing. "A lot of times you have a strategy and you don't think of other things. That's when a weak piece can get you."
Tyler, who likes to protect his king and queen with the pawns throughout most of his games, said he's been developing a sneak attack. "I like to use the rooks to trap people in a corner," he said. "Then I like to get them with my bishop."
Anticipation and planning are just two of the skills Salem teacher Kathy Lahey hopes the students come away with. "Chess teaches cooperation, an understanding of each other's thinking," she said.
"It also opens up other possibilities besides physical sports."
Lahey kicked the program off with students reading "Starting Chess," a Usborne First Skills paperback that illustrates practice lessons that develop thinking, she said.
"I'm hoping that it will help them think ahead, which they can use throughout their lives," Lahey said.
Dennis Murphy and Jonathan Byrne kept up a game that lasted about a half-hour, playing with pieces that looked like Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees players.
Jonathan, who was playing with the Red Sox, complimented his opponent. "He's an un-quitter," he said. "He doesn't quit. And he has a lot of strategies."
Dennis had praise for Jonathan, as well. "Earlier, he was easier to beat," he said. "Now, it's a lot harder."
Seattle-based non-profit organization America's Foundation for Chess is one of several that integrate chess into school curricula nationwide. The foundation puts teachers into classrooms in Seattle area and San Diego and gives money to schools to start their own programs.
Foundation spokeswoman Rosalind Sciammas said students learn best in the second and third grade. "At that age, boys and girls haven't developed as many separate interests," Sciammas said.
"By the fourth grade, we find that girls are more interested in staying behind the scenes. They don't want to make a boy seem stupid. I know that sounds stereotypical, but it plays out in the classroom." Will Siss / Republican-American Salem Elementary School fourth-graders Andrew Ernsky, left, and Tyler Lillo, right, watch classmate Dennis Murphy make his move during a chess tournament in their Naugatuck classroom.
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