New chess clubs in Southold, Greenport push students toward critical thinking

A Greenport Elementary School student glides across a giant chess board and shimmies between two black chess pieces. The top of the pawns stand as tall as his stomach.

The student’s eyes narrow on his competitor’s white rook, a piece that can only move horizontally or vertically, as he tries to determine his opponent’s next move.

More than 30 Southold and Greenport second- and third-graders faced off last Thursday outside Southold Elementary School for the first-ever chess “tournament” between the two schools. Chess Club members from both districts battled it out on a life-size board while separate games took place across the playground until 4 p.m.

But no winner was crowned at the tournament, Southold Chess Club adviser David Riddell said. The goal of the competition was to expose students to alternative kinds of play and push them out of their comfort zone by teaming up with unfamiliar players.

The Chess Club was introduced to Southold and Greenport earlier this year after Wesley Wang, a ninth-grade student from Jericho High School, donated 24 chess sets and guidebooks to the districts.

In an October 2018 email, Wesley pitched the donation to joint Superintendent David Gamberg. Wesley said he and his college-aged brother founded CHESSanity, a nonprofit devoted to promoting chess play for children. The organization, which has raised over $35,000 through weekly chess games, has donated chess sets to 20 schools in four school districts across Long Island.

Shortly afterward, two clubs were formed, gathering 22 students in Southold and 10 in Greenport to participate in the game on a weekly basis.

Greenport teacher Brady Wilkins, co-adviser for Greenport’s club, said chess promotes higher-level thinking and memorization.

“They’ve memorized all the pieces. Applying it sometimes is a challenge, but they have plenty of time to get it right,” he said.

Co-adviser Jeanne McInnis also monitors Greenport’s Chess Club. She said she’s observed so much growth in some kids, including one student who struggles academically.

“To see him come so far in 12 weeks, making moves, strategizing … and understanding what he’s doing, has been such a fun surprise to see him blossom and excel,” she said.

Most of Southold Elementary School’s outdoor play equipment was funded through the Southold School Educational Foundation, managed by school board vice president Judi Fouchet, Mr. Gamberg said.

“So much of what you see here physically — the sandbox, the benches, the amphitheater, the garden — came as a result of the Foundation’s work, and Judi was extremely instrumental in getting it started,” he said. “[It] allows for physical and mental play.”

Third-grade student Michelangelo Bendik said his sister, who attends Southold High School, introduced him to chess. He said he enjoys it because he feels challenged and there’s always room for improvement.

“In sports, you’re either born with it or you have to practice,” he said. “With chess, you just have to practice. That’s what makes it special.”

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