Sam Peterson, left, and Erin Mallo, both 11, play a game with members of the Sartell Middle School chess club on Jan. 18.

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By Jason Wachter, The (St. Cloud, Minn.) Times

Sam Peterson, left, and Erin Mallo, both 11, play a game with members of the Sartell Middle School chess club on Jan. 18.

Chances are most of them have only one thing on their mind: fun. But many educators believe there is a correlation between the thought-provoking pastime and how well a student does in life.

“Chess teaches them not so much the movement of the pieces but what your opponent can throw at you … preparing for the unforeseen by trying to predict … just like life,” said Josh Bentley, a volunteer chess instructor at Sartell Middle School.

Chess is now inspiring second and third-grade students around the country thanks to a program from America’s Foundation for Chess: First Move. The award-winning program introduces chess as a learning tool to teach critical thinking skills, and build self-esteem and confidence.

“Chess is like a more advanced form of checkers. You have to use lots of strategy. And it can help your grades a lot, too. I’ve noticed my grades improve,” said Harris, a Sartell student in the chess club, which is not part of the First Move program.

In 2010, First Move celebrated its 10th anniversary by engaging more than 50,000 students in almost 2,000 classrooms across 27 states. In 2011, America’s Foundation for Chess (AF4C) plans to expand the program to an additional 30,000 students nationwide.

“In nearly 30 nations around the world, chess is integrated into the country’s scholastic curriculum,” AF4C Executive Director Wendi Fischer said in relation to First Move, which began in 2000 and was introduced to its first classrooms in the Seattle area a few years later.

According to a study conducted by Education Northwest in 2009, more than half of First Move parents found learning chess helped improve their child’s grades and more than 62% credited the chess education program with improving their child’s attitude toward school.

“In the U.S., despite numerous studies that demonstrate the impact chess education can have on cognitive and critical thinking skills, chess is rarely incorporated into American schools,” Fischer said.

Even though today’s preteens live in the age of video games, Facebook and other technological advances, chess offers an alternative.

“I just got ‘Mario Kart’ and ‘Just Dance’ for Christmas (for the Wii), and that’s probably my favorite thing to do on the Wii … but sometimes I like to do stuff that’s more quiet. It just depends on how I’m feeling,” sixth-graders Hannah Kosloski said of the board game that teaches her strategy.

Win, lose

One of the more important lessons the students learn playing chess is not just losing graciously if they do lose but rather to not give up even when things seem hopeless, according to Bentley.

“I’ve been trying to teach them that when a player just has their king left and says, ‘I’m going to lose,’ I tell them, ‘Not necessarily,'” he said. “We focus on the best outcome we can get.”

The club has even tried a horseshoe tournament where a player would suddenly have to switch from his game and board to another one already in play, forcing them to quickly think on their feet.

Players are pitted against each other in the chess club based on their ability of play and progress through a tournament of sorts until a prize is awarded at the end of six weeks.

“We refer to pieces as the ‘knight’ or the ‘rook,’ not as ‘the little horsy’ or ‘castle,'” Bentley said of how the club does not dumb down the game to suit the middle school students.

Bentley, 27, said he has been playing chess since he was in middle school and once placed third in a school competition. It is his second year volunteering at the chess club.

” ‘Boring, too complicated’ are some of the kinds of things people think of when they think of chess, but myself, what I think I kind of like is you’re in control. You’re moving all the pieces … trying to stay that two steps ahead (of your opponent),” Bentley said.