BELFAST, Maine — Late Monday morning, two students slipped into Jacquie Gage’s office at Capt. Albert W. Stevens School in Belfast with just one thing on their mind: chess.
“We just want to play a game,” they said, grabbing a vinyl chess board and settling down at a table to spend a few free minutes sharpening their skills in preparation for the Maine Scholastic Team Chess Championships this Saturday at the University of Maine.
Impromptu chess games like this one have become common at the elementary school and some others in the district, according to Gage, the extended learning program coordinator for Regional School Unit 71. Interest may be spiking this week because of the upcoming championships, but that’s not the only reason. All of the second- and third-graders in the school take chess lessons. Nearly one in five of the roughly 200 students in second through fifth grades at CASS have participated in chess team practice.
“It’s a movement,” she said. “At any given day at this school, you will see kids playing chess. I think it’s fabulous to see children engaged and excited about an intellectual game.”
The history of chess — sometimes known as the game of kings — stretches back almost 1,500 years to northern India, where it originated. But in Regional School Unit 71, the chess movement began just four or so years ago when it was introduced through extended learning, the district’s gifted and talented program.
Other students who were not part of the program were interested in learning, Gage said, and so she began putting together proposals for the parent-teacher groups at CASS and the Ames Elementary School in Searsmont to have chess coach Bruce Haffner provide lessons.
It took off.
“We reach kids who may not have parents at home who play chess,” Gage said, adding that she makes long-term loans of boards to kids who don’t have a set at their house. “Throughout the country, we have seen chess level the playing field of economic diversity. I feel chess really changes lives.”
Haylie Whitney, 12, of Belfast, who started playing chess when she was in second grade, said she fell in love with it.
“It takes strategy, focus, sportsmanship and a lot of practice …,” she said. “I feel like it’s making me smarter and developing my brain.”
Her grandmother gave her a chess set for her birthday, and she plays a lot at home with her younger brother.
“My mom is very surprised,” Whitney said. “Basically, all we want to do is play chess.”
One reason why she and the other students may have fallen so hard for the ancient board game is Haffner, an enthusiastic coach who has a knack for sharing his love of the game.
“Bruce is very charismatic and passionate about chess, and that rubs off on the kids,” Gage said.
Rohan Joseph, 11, of Belfast, who placed third in his division last year during the statewide scholastic chess team championships, said he’s been able to apply the strategies he’s learned in chess elsewhere.
“I use some chess tactics on the soccer field,” he said, adding that what he loves most about chess is its versatility.
That’s just what chess enthusiasts such as Gage, who was the only girl on her middle school chess team, likes to hear about the game.
“It’s life-changing for many people. It teaches kids how to win and lose graciously. It teaches how to strategize and plan ahead,” she said. “I like seeing how it positively affects kids, and that’s why I do so much of it.”
Ashley Reynolds, assistant principal at CASS, said she believes the interest in chess at the elementary school has made math “cool again” to students.
“There is a level of aspiration to be on the chess team,” she said. “We look at chess as an equalizer. Anyone can learn to play and learn to play well.”
Alex Miller, 10, of Belfast is a chess captain who has been playing for two years now. He placed third in the state last year in his age division.
“When I played my first game, I didn’t even know what chess was,” he said, adding that he’s figured it out, at least in part. “It’s basically math and science combined, and I like both of those things.”
Miller has big dreams — to be a state chess champion, and to one day be a chess teacher himself. For now, he’s a bit anxious about the upcoming tournament, but is looking forward to it, too. Before each game, as he has been taught to do, he will shake hands with his opponent and tell them, “good luck.”
Then he will get to work.
“You have to calculate where the piece is going to go and how far it’s going to go,” he said. “And you’ve got to think outside the box.”