The popularity of chess among elementary school students in both the Webster Groves and Kirkwood school districts is on the rise.
Each elementary school in both school districts has its own chess club. While participation is increasing, none come close to the 150 elementary school children that show up for chess club at Westchester Elementary School in the Kirkwood School District every Tuesday from 7:50 to 8:30 a.m.
"Last year, I had maybe 70 to 80 kids, so this has been a huge influx this year," said chess club sponsor and Westchester's gifted resource teacher Cindy Voller.
"I can't put my finger on it. Last year I really talked chess club up to the younger kids and, right or wrong, was trying to get more girls involved. I was especially pushing to get young women into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers."
The chess club has been at Westchester for the 15 years that Voller has been a teacher at the school. Voller has been the club's sponsor since she became the gifted resource teacher, better known as the REACH teacher, last year.
"To be perfectly honest, I didn't know how to play until I started last year," Voller said. "So, I had to learn along the way while I was teaching, which I think helped because they could see that even an adult can learn this, and they beat me frequently."
Even though Voller talked up the chess club and was more vocal about it last year, she said membership has almost doubled since she changed the program's structure.
"I structure it a little differently. We have three groups of kids and they're taught at their level," she said. "I teach the beginning class, and I have some parents that help with the intermediate group and then I have a parent or two that help with our advance group."
In the beginner's class, children learn the game piece-by-piece until they can strategically play each other.
The intermediate class is made up of beginners from last year's club, and the middle grades. They compete while learning how to become more advanced.
"There's probably a little bit more instruction at the intermediate level," Voller said. "Like reviewing strategy and kind of helping them to see a little bit more of how the pieces can play off of each other and planning ahead, thinking ahead of how my opponent can play ... what are my options here?"
The advanced group is made of mostly fourth and fifth graders, with a few third graders. They play and observe each other.
"They learn so much just by watching each other play because, at that point, they play at such a high level they don't need a lot of instruction," Voller said.
Westchester's chess club is free for students to join. The PTO gave the club 10 chess sets at the beginning of the year.
Bristol Chess In Webster
At Bristol Elementary School in the Webster Groves School District, the chess club is run by parents.
Al and Jeni Hawkins are the primary, first-year parent sponsors of the chess club -- a club which has between 25-35 elementary school children participants.
"I helped last year and the woman that was leading chess club last year moved on to Steger. So, they had an opening and my wife and I enjoyed it so much we decided to help," said Al Hawkins, whose third grade son, Jack, has been playing chess for a few years.
Bristol's chess club meets every other Friday from 7:30 to 8 a.m. Principal Nancy Zitzmann said the program has been going on since she has been at the school for the past seven years, if not longer.
"It was parent-driven and parents came on Friday morning at one time once a month," she said. "Now we have it twice a month and they would just bring their own chess boards and the kids would start playing. So, it was run by parents and handled by parents, and it's very fun."
Zitzmann said attendance has increased each year, so much so that the district's foundation gave the elementary schools a grant for new supplies and to put a chess club together at each school.
"Now that we've got a lot of equipment, more kids are interested and more parents are coming in," Zitzmann said.
Webster Groves elementary schools also receive some added help from the Webster University chess team, the best collegiate team in the country.
"Susan Polgar, the coach of the Webster University chess team has assisted us," Al Hawkins said. "We had a visitor last week, Jake Banawa, who came and instructed the children. They're really interested."
One of those children is third grader Riley James who attends chess club, "because we get to be with our friends and chess is fun."
Third grader Jack Stanley was on the opposite side of the chess board from James.
"I don't have a chess board at my house and no one in my family plays chess - only my sister," Stanley said.
Polgar and Webster University's chess team have been assisting the Webster Groves School District for the past year.
"We have cooperation with seven different schools in the school district," Polgar said. "The children very much enjoy it and the parents and teachers are very happy with the program."
Just like Westchester, Bristol's chess club members are separated by skill level.
"We have an instructional board for new players and the more experienced players play among themselves," Al Hawkins said.
Polgar said the popularity of chess is on the rise.
"According to the statistics by the U.S. Chess Federation, there are over 45 million people in the U.S. who play chess today," Polgar said. "Especially more so in scholastic chess. The U.S. Chess Federation's membership is largely scholastic players."
Chess has kids making all the right moves and, to the delight of many, the moves are being carried out on a board, not a smart phone.