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Murray Journal

Student-player numbers rise as chess returns to Woodstock Elementary

Dec 02, 2022 02:59PM ● By Julie Slama

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

In the middle of more than 20 pairs of elementary schoolchildren playing chess before school on a Friday morning, a parent breaks in with a lesson.

As he moves the pieces in front of the group of student chess players, he asks students for their move. He pauses, then asks: “Let me ask you, why do we want it in this position and not this? Which is better? Why? Yes, to control center is better, right?”

The parent volunteer is Toby Ray, who has been helping teach chess to the early morning chess group at Woodstock Elementary.

During the COVID-19, the school chess program was put on hold out of safety and health concerns surrounding the pandemic.

“When chess came back, I felt I needed to help,” he said. “I know the game well enough to help these guys and my little girl is very excited about the game. I have a lot of great memories of playing in school tournaments when I was her age and I want to help instill that love in these kids.”

Ray’s lessons include the three basic chess rules: control the center, get the knights as well as the bishops out of castle as soon as possible.

“I'm not an educator, but I think those bite-sized rules are ones these guys can hold on to,” he said. “These kids are learning focus, decision-making and planning, and sportsmanship.”

A student asks for help, and Ray replies: “Have you checked the three rules of checkmate?”

“I want the students to learn the rules of the game and be able to play independently so it’s an opportunity for them to think another way, but also to have fun,” he said.

He began teaching his daughter, Olive, with No Stress Chess.

“It’s a great product that gives you the diagram of how the piece moves and you draw a card, and it shows the piece that you're supposed to know. It's just a good teaching tool. It helped with chess fundamentals,” he said.

His daughter, who started playing the actual game around age 7, was playing against her third-grader classmate, Ryan Wagner.

Olive has “grown to love chess after my dad taught me” and said they often check out a chess book from the library.

Ryan, who learned chess from his older brother, said his favorite part is to strategize.

“Chess is really fun to really think about what your next move is going to be,” he said.

At the end of their game, the same as every game, the students record the winner on cards that teacher Sonja Aoki provides. This particular morning, Aoki has a handful more kids than have come before so she was making more cards.

“This is great,” she said. “This started a couple of years before COVID and it was pretty popular and now, we’re back and the group is growing once again.”

Aoki said with the donation of chess sets, and the help of parent volunteers like Ray, there is a commitment to the game.

“The children come play chess and some kids who know how to play, they may help other children learn, but they’re still learning some strategies from Mr. Ray,” she said. “And they’re learning teamwork, how to get along with others, communication and problem-solving. We have second-graders through fifth-graders and this brings a little bit of team spirit and camaraderie at our school and maybe they’ll see each other in the hall and say hi or at recess, they will have a new friend to play with.”

Aoki, who admits she’s not a chess player, “saw how important chess was” so she volunteered to coordinate its return.

“I remember when my kids, who are in their 30s, played chess before school and they just had so much fun meeting new friends and learning some new things. It’s great to expose children to other things that are meaningful because a lot of them don't have the opportunity,” she said. “I know a little chess and I’ve learned a few tricks, but I certainly appreciate my parent volunteers to come in and show these students how to play and teach them strategies. Chess has helped them be responsible and respectful and it’s giving students another way to be involved and connect to the school. I just want them to have the opportunity to play.”