Children playing chess at the library…

While maybe not the stuff of adventure novels, the children’s chess club held at the North Bellmore Library is surprisingly high-spirited, and the young participants are unexpectedly vocal and enthusiastic. 

“I’m just into it,” said Justin Drexler, 11, as he moved a bishop in line with his opponent’s king. “I like the strategy. I came in fifth place at camp [in a tournament among 35 children], and I play it on Xbox and Wii. I keep practicing.”

Drexler, like the dozen or so other young chess players in the community room, quickly became thoroughly engaged in the so-called sport of kings, and ardent about sending rooks and pawns packing on their way to checkmate.

“It’s a really cool game because you get to control your own mini-army and make your own decisions,” Shira Konigstein, 14, explained. “It’s also a great game because you can’t be underestimated based on your age, gender or ethnicity.”

In existence since about the ninth century, chess is a two-player board game whose object is to threaten the opponent’s king with capture. It has been around in its current form since the latter 15th century beginning in Europe.

Chess master and instructor Joel Salman began the early evening session by running through the moves of a chess match he tore out of a newspaper. He demonstrated each move using flat felt chess piece cutouts inserted into square pockets on a felt chessboard suspended from a large dry-erase board. The library’s chess club instructor for more than 10 years, Salman has been a full-time professional chess teacher in Long Island schools and summer camps for 18 years. 

Salman asked the children a lot of questions. “Which piece is the strongest on the board?” “Does anyone not know what ‘castling’ is?” “Where do you see a ‘pin’?” While some youngsters enthusiastically waved their hands waiting to be called on, others called out answers, rather vocally considering they were in a library.

“How do we tempt the pawn to get out of the way of the queen?” Salman asked the group. “We have a decision to make. Queen takes bishop or pawn takes bishop? Think about, and then we’ll take a vote.” 

Salman demonstrated the two choices by moving the felt queen and pawn, in turn, but also presented a few other concepts along the way. He pointed out, for example, that lots of white pieces were beginning to gather around the black king, and that pawns doubled up are less effective than in rows. 

Throughout the rest of the game, the children took turns explaining which moves they would make and why.

“Great job seeing all the moves, finding the pins, and finding the checkmate at the end,” Salman concluded, as the kids dispersed to tables to set up chessboards of their own.

“I learned chess when I was three or four,” said Jasper Seabold, 7, who, along with his sister Amelia Seabold, 10, Salman considered among the more talented chess players of the group. Both were taught how to play by their dad, while many others in the club, including Jesse Schiffmann, 10, learned from their grandfathers.

A few parents stayed in back and watched the session, including Martha Kovel, Shira Konigstein’s mother. “We started coming to this for my older son who has autism,” Kovel said. Chess was recommended to her for socialization and to enhance concentration, she said, and the game has been written up in research studies as helpful to autistic children.

“It’s great for kids with learning disabilities,” she added, “[because] they have to make eye contact, exchange ideas, and they have to listen.”

“Checkmate,” said a grinning Anthony Vignola, 17, a learning-challenged child who has been a regular at the chess club for many years. “His mother used coming here as a reward for good behavior,” Kovel explained. 

“We all know bishops are stronger than knights,” Salman announced. Every child in the room nodded in response. 

”This is a fairly experienced group, and talented,” Salman said. No kidding.

The North Bellmore Library chess clubs for children and young adults meet every Tuesday night. The Bellmore Memorial Library also offers chess for children.

NOTE: Other young chess players’ no-brainers clarified for the rest of us:  The queen is the strongest piece. “Castling” is a special, one-time exchange of places between a rook and the king. And a “pin” is a situation in which a chess piece is “pinned” or cannot move without exposing a more valuable chess piece to potential capture.