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Pittsburgh chess playing kids excel at critical thinking and concentration

Michael Machosky
March14/ 2017

Ashley Priore has played in the Carnegie Library Chess Tournament since she was a child.

Her father taught her how to play, but she mainly learned through watching her brothers and sister compete.

“My favorite memory as a player would be when I was the only female in a chess tournament, and I beat all the boys,” says Priore, 17. “Chess is male dominated, but this is changing thanks to the new generation of strong female chess players.”

She feels passionate about the empowering qualities of chess. As a student at The Ellis School, she finds time to teach the game to younger kids at Carnegie Library in Oakland.

“Chess is more than just a game that people play for fun or over checkers. It’s a global tool, education system, and female empowerment movement,” says Priore, of Shadyside. “Chess has allowed children in poor countries who can’t afford an education, let alone a meal, become educated through this game. They learn concentration, strategies, math, STEM, psychology, writing and many other important fields.

“Chess is the reason I am who I am today,” she says. “It made me competitive, strong, independent, and it is my future.”

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Even younger kids can learn chess well enough to compete. Photo courtesy of Ashley Priore

Kids throughout the library’s county-wide reach have been competing in the 44th Annual Carnegie Library Chess Tournament since January. Weekly neighborhood matches are leading up to the finals in April.

The free tournament is open to kids in grades K to 8, with two divisions. Prizes include trophies for the top two players in each division and certificates for all participants. The First-place winners from each library are invited to the finals. Sponsors include the Grable Foundation and Frick Educational Fund of the Buhl Foundation.

“I have always been amazed at the 5-year-olds who play chess,” says Megan Fogt, a librarian at the Squirrel Hill branch. “They learn it from their families and really love it. It’s part of the atmosphere here.”

Chessmaster Jerry Meyers has been teaching Pittsburgh kids to play chess competitively since the mid-‘90s.

“I see a lot of kids who are good in math in my classes, and a lot who play musical instruments,” he says.

Developing critical thinking skills and the aptitude to problem solve are big benefits for his students.

“Every move of the game, you’re in some novel situation,” says Meyers. “You know some certain things about the game, but you’re basically left to your own resources. What you know isn’t going to give you an answer. You have to draw on a bit of knowledge, and do it to the best of your ability.”

Even very young kids can learn chess. Meyers prefers that his students be familiar with the game, but there are some easy ways for young children to learn the basics.

“There are several computer programs or even cell-phone apps,” says Meyers. “I usually send young kids to ‘Dinosaur Chess.’ The computer (games) tend to have some animation and little perks systems to encourage kids to keep going. Dinosaur Chess, for each piece, has a different animated dinosaur character explaining it to the kids. Once you know how to play, you play from the littlest dinosaur to the biggest dinosaur, and you try to beat them all.”

And then Meyers can take over.

“My favorite thing is watching those 5-year-olds grow up and see what they do with the chess skills they pick up,” Fogt says. “I also appreciate how Jerry talks with the kids about what you learn from chess.

“Kids don’t like to lose,” she says. “Jerry does such a nice job talking about how that’s how you grow, in chess and in life. You make a mistake and learn from it. You explore a certain strategy and keep tweaking and adjusting it. The best thing you can do is play someone who’s better than you — that’s how you pick up new ideas and new strategies and learn from that person.”

Using chess as a teaching tool isn’t exactly new. According to legend, that’s why it was developed about 1,500 years ago in India.

“The rulers there, generally speaking — they had lots of wives and lots of kids,” Meyers says. “A ruler wanted to put his kids into positions of responsibility as they grew older. You had to have the best education possible. He wanted his kids to be good at handling all kinds of situations. He asked his teachers and advisers to come up with a training tool. And one of the things they came up with was chess.”

Michael Machosky