The popularity of one of the world’s oldest games continues to grow among some of District 202’s youngest students.

About 25 percent of Wesmere Elementary School students are now involved in the school’s chess club, seven years after the club first formed. Wesmere has 760 students this year and 198 of the students take part in the club.

“This is a record number for us,” chess club sponsor Wendy Traina said. “Even when we had a school population of more than 1,000 students, we only had 175 students in the chess club.”

Last year the chess club had 130 student members. Traina believes the club has grown in popularity to its highest number of student members ever because it is a free extracurricular and because some other extracurriculars like choir and band were cut at the elementary level for budgetary reasons.

To accommodate all of the students, chess club sponsors Wendy Traina, Morgan Bell, Amanda Adducci, Nicole Stewart, Holly Held, Betty Boras and Jeanne Wlodarski divided the students into two groups: the Knights and Rooks.

The two groups of kindergarten through fifth grade students meet on alternating Wednesdays from 7:50-8:35 a.m. to play chess and learn more about the game.

When the chess club began meeting this year in October, the chess club sponsors started each meeting with a short chess lesson.

They also provided the students with informational packets on the game and even played relay races to see who could set up their board the fastest and who could identify the missing piece.

“The kids are wonderful,” Traina said. “Since we have so many new students, we have our ‘expert students’ help the new students.”

Now the students pair up as experts and novices and teach each other the game on one of the 42 boards available to the club.

Traina became a sponsor of the Wesmere chess club in 2004, after two second grade teachers started the club a year prior. One of the second grade teachers then moved, and the chess club was going to disband, so Traina volunteered to keep it going since so many students showed an interest.

“This club really runs itself,” Traina said. “I just love it because the kids come to school so happy and ready to learn and play.”

Research has shown that teaching chess to children increases their abilities in many areas including reading skills, problem solving, analysis of situations, cause and effect, abstract thinking, and critical thinking, Traina said. The activity also helps to foster sportsmanship and friendship.

“We tell the kids sometimes that they can learn more from losing a game than winning a game,” Traina said. ‘They are reminded often that both the winner and loser say, ‘good game,’ at the end of the game.”

The students are also assigned leadership roles. Select students are asked to help other students, demonstrate moves and strategies and help with crowd control.

Several District 202 elementary schools either also have, or have had chess clubs in recent years.

This year, Eagle Pointe, Eichelberger, Freedom, Liberty and Crystal Lawns elementary schools all have chess clubs. Principals at these schools report experiencing similar success and enthusiasm for chess from their students.

Traina recalled one of her favorite stories about chess club that happened while she was talking to a second grade student while working bus duty years ago.

“I asked the student if he played any after school sports,” Traina said. ‘He looked at me rather confused and said, ‘Mrs. Traina, I do chess, that is my sport.’”