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Sophomore Jessica Chen plays chess with Elizabeth Sumner. Madeline Fry | Collegian

A six-year-old chess player slides out of her chair after finishing a game.

“I’m getting good at this!” she says.

“Yes, you are,” agrees sophomore Jessica Chen, who has just finished explaining how to defend vulnerable pieces. “You’re excellent. You’ve improved a lot since this morning.”

The pair has played two games on a flat, vinyl chessboard at a square table in the corner of  A.J.’s Café. After her win, six-year-old Elizabeth Sumnar jumps up to find her father, Chris, who sits down to play her next. He says he’s learning too.

Sumnar’s skills are impressive for a six-year-old, Chen says, but she admits to having let her win both games.

“You have to be subtle about losing,” Chen says. “You have to play badly without teaching them to play badly.”

At Chess Fest, the first partnership between the Community Sports Outreach GOAL Program and the Chess Club, students taught children the strategies of chess the morning of Saturday, Nov. 18, in the Grewcock Student Union.

Rain falls heavily outside while a few college students sit at square tables explaining chess, turn by turn, to half a dozen children. Some parents, all fathers, watch as their kids play and pick up strategies along with them. One father is Assistant Professor of Politics Matthew Mendham, who watches his son David compete against another child. He says he brought David for his first chance to practice chess at an event with new opponents.

A few tables down, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Ian Church plays against Don Tocco, a donor and frequent speaker at the college.

In all, six tables host chess matches. Senior Sam Cassels, the president of the Chess Club, said the small number of attendees gave students the opportunity to provide one-on-one instruction.

When he plays against kids, Cassels shows them moves to avoid and but lets them choose their next steps. He sometimes goes easy on them.
“That depends on how much I like the kid,” he jokes.

Actually, he says he evaluates children’s levels of expertise as they play against each other. If the kids are learning, he’ll encourage them by giving them a win.

Junior Gill West tries a different coaching strategy. When he plays against a boy named Parker, who is about Sumnar’s age, their match lasts a full hour. Whenever it’s Parker’s turn, West shows him the three best moves he could make and lets him pick. Their match ends as a draw.

“I realized at the end I was about to win,” West said. So he reined in the strategy, and neither player got a checkmate.

Win or lose, learning chess helps children, according to Chen, because it teaches them analytical thinking.

“Also,” she adds, “it makes you look smart.”

Junior Caroline Andrews, the leader of the Community Sports Outreach program, said the purpose of the event was reach out to a new demographic of the community. Not all students enjoy athletic activities, but some do like chess. The International Olympic Committee even recognizes chess as a sport.

“This ultimately contributes to the overall goal of our program, which is to support the extracurricular activities put on for kids in our community,” Andrews said. “We want to inspire and lead kids to actively engage their minds and bodies in their free time.”