Teddy Cotton focused on the chess pieces as he calculated options. Finally he moved and said “check” as he threatened to capture the opposing king.
Cotton focused on strategy at an after-school chess club at St. Peter School in Kirkwood. He’s one of about 80 students at the school who meet once a week with instructors from the Saint Louis Chess Club. The students are separated by skill level, with the first level of mostly kindergartners learning the basics and more advanced students learning strategy.
In a classroom of mostly first-through third-graders, students are encouraged to use notecards to remind them of the rules and good or bad moves. “You better make sure the piece they’re after is protected,” instructor Daniel Todd told students.
Cotton, a fourth-grader, started playing chess at St. Peter two years ago. He also plays in a CYC league and enjoys the competition. “I thought it would be a fun sport to learn how to play,” he said. “I like to move the pieces and the strategy.”
Cotton’s enthusiasm reflects an increasingly popular grassroots movement, especially in St. Louis. The Catholic Youth Apostolate’s CYC sports program began chess competition five years ago. HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” explored the re-energized chess participation in an edition of the show Oct. 23 that included an interview with Saint Louis Chess Club founder and patron Rex Sinquefield. At the World Chess Championships in London, Fabiano Caruana of St. Louis is trying to become the first U.S. player to win since Bobby Fischer in 1972.
Nick Robert, a fifth-grader at St. Peter School, began playing chess four years ago. He likes its complexity. “You have to think about all your moves. If you don’t, there’s consequences,” he said.
At first, he figured he’d come to the chess club for a year or two and quit, but he started playing it more. He enjoys learning skills from CYC competitors from other schools.
Jack Friedman, also a fifth-grader, started playing at St. Peter about two years ago and quickly took to the strategy of chess. He said in CYC competition he’s relaxed the first three games, then feels the pressure his last game. But that’s when he’s at his best because he puts more thought into his moves, he said.
Courtney Dunn helped start the chess program when her son, now a sophomore at St. Louis University High School, was a sixth-grader at St. Peter.
“My kids are just not big team sports kids,” Dunn said. Having recently moved there, “I was looking for something where he could get more socially engaged in the school.”
The after-school club began with 18 students. The next school year, at a back-to-school night, 65 students signed up for chess. The school and parents have helped it succeed, Dunn said.
“We try to keep it relaxed and invite all players of all ages and abilities, putting them with kids with similar abilities,” Dunn said.
Not everyone who comes to the club plays on the CYC chess team. About 20 students compete in the CYC competition and are recognized at the parish just as any team and athletes there are highlighted. The team is open to any child who registers for CYC sports at the parish, not just club members.
Dunn doesn’t play chess, yet she’s convinced it helps children with problem-solving, impulse control and academics. “I know what the best first three moves are, but after that I’m pretty terrible,” she said with a chuckle.
Dunn’s son, Cooper, plays on his high school team now. He appreciated being part of the club and team at St. Peter. “It was a fun growth environment, open to everyone,” he said. “It was cool to see students of different grade levels competing fairly against each other with good sportsmanship to cap it all off.”
>> CYC chess program
• Program started in 2013. This will be the sixth season
• Last year, 22 schools participated in the program.
• The CYC averages 145 kids per chess meet. Most kids play all four meets.
• Larger programs are at St. Margaret of Scotland, St. Peter, St. Gabriel, Immacolata and St. Charles Borromeo.
• Grades K-8 participate.
• The top 10 finishers in the four preliminary meets qualify for a finals meet. This season the finals are March 23 at CBC High School.
• The preliminary meets are Dec. 8 at St. Peter in Kirkwood, Jan. 19 at St. James the Greater in south St. Louis, Feb. 9 at Saint Louis University and March 2 at St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.