Knights learn critical thinking

Published 10:31 pm Sunday, February 2, 2014

Polk Knights gather around the chess boards, carefully placing those first pawns. Soon queens will fall, bishops will scuttle diagonally, and knights will gallop at angles.

Rooks will make their sharp horizontal and vertical voyages, tempting fate, until checkmates stop it all. To the unwary observer, it may look like the Polk Knights simply play a game, but a closer look reveals that the game gives them new strengths to use in everyday life.

“Children need to learn how to think critically and understand the implications of their decisions,” said Brian Crissey, chess instructor. “Chess has been proven in many different situations to be a vehicle by which children can learn to make choices, think ahead and planning. It’s a necessary skill. The children learn the difference between strategy, tactics, short-term gains and long-term results.”

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This year, Polk Central Elementary School has two programs on Fridays. Crissey teaches the girls from noon to 12:45 p.m. and the boys from 12:45 to 1:30 p.m. Crissey also leads a chess program at Sunny View Elementary after school, 4:30 to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays.

Chess requires a kind of thinking that makes it more than a simple game, Crissey said. Specific chess strategies can promote development of life skills.

“The gambit translates into in the child’s life into making safe decisions,” Crissey said. “It’s a matter of thinking. It becomes an exercise for the brain. The world is so gray and difficult to understand in many ways, and the world doesn’t translate well into true/false or multiple choice. It’s deeper than that, and chess teaches kids to look more deeply into situations, and look at what might happen if you make certain choices.”

A good chess player can intuit possibilities and results, curbing impulsivity.

“You look forward to the possible consequences of one’s actions,” Crissey said. “Children learn to think things through. In chess, as in life, what looks good initially and impulsively can be bad for you in the long run.”

The children really enjoy the opportunity to exercise their brains in new ways by learning chess, Crissey said.

“When they are coming out of the previous class and getting ready to come to chess, they are smiling and skipping down the hallways. It’s wonderful to see,” he said.

Chess empowers children who learn differently.

“One student had been identified as having learning disabilities, I taught him how the pieces moved, strategies, tactics and so on. He would play with the pieces, move them around, but I thought he had no idea what to do,” Crissey said. “I was despairing as to how much good it was doing him. Then, this past week, we had a new girl who didn’t know anything about playing chess. “I sat this boy down and told him to teach her how to play. He lit up like a Christmas tree. He knew how the pieces moved and strategies and he was able to share that with the new girl. He knew much more than I had given him credit for knowing, and he knew a lot more than he was letting on.”

The game also bridges differences. One Hispanic third grader hadn’t developed his English as a second language skills right away, but he demonstrated unusual visual spatial skill, and he was allowed to play with the fifth grade boys.

Crissey found the path to chess by following his father’s footsteps. His father, born in 1899, was 48 years old when Crissey was born.

“There wasn’t a lot of playing football between him and me,” Crissey said. “He did teach me to play chess at an early age and he was my first opponent. It went well for 20 years until I got better than him. When I started beating him, he stopped playing with me.”

A tournament will begin at Polk Central this week. Results will be posted at the website, polkknights. org. About 40 students in two groups of 20 participate at Polk Central, and 26 students have signed up at Sunny View Elementary.

“At Polk Central, the kids will stay there for the 45 minutes,” Crissey said. “In the after school program, kids are coming and going the whole time.”

Russell Ruff initiated the chess experience. Crissey began teaching Ruff, at the instigation of his friend Lynne Parsons, and soon they decided to open up the opportunity to encourage other children at his school.

Now, Ruff has become a volunteer and helps children learn the game at the after school program. A few chess opportunities also exist in Polk County in the summer, Crissey said, including a tournament at the annual.

“The last couple of years, at the Fabulous Fourth in Columbus at Stearns Gym, we’ve organized a chess tournament open to all students, and we’ve had some donations of money from the Kiwanis Club through Ernie Giannini’s efforts, which has turned into cash prizes at several skill levels,” Crissey said. “Last year it poured rain on July 4th this last year, which depressed the turnout, but a lot of prizes are given and everyone always has a good time.”

At this time, the chess learning usually stops after elementary school in this area, Crissey said. Some of the students have shown excellent aptitude. The highest ranked undefeated player of 2011- 2012, Charlie Parker, won a glass chess set as a trophy.

“Right now there’s no skill development past this level, and if you don’t use it you lose it,” Crissey said. “In an ideal world, there would be an opportunity for students in all grades to be involved with chess to continue to evolve skills and decisionmaking ability, but it’s hard. You need a sponsor at the school willing to work with it … Children are encouraged to test well, and chess in the regular academic school day can take away from time for something else. We’ve had support from Polk County Community Foundation to do the after school program, but it’s challenging to instruct in an organized way. At this point, we have the program only at Polk Central and Sunny View.”