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Strategy game played by millions helps students find success, friends

Chess photoA game of strategy is popping up in more St. Charles County schools – but it has nothing to do with keyboards or joysticks.

“Chess is becoming a more popular sport, but it is already one of the most popular sports/games in the world,” said George Krasnopolskiy, owner of CheckMates USA, a chess instruction company. “Millions of people of all ages play chess, estimates have it between 600 and 700 million. That’s almost 10 percent of the world’s population.”

Krasnopolskiy said more schools are starting chess clubs because they are looking for educational activities to enhance the learning experience.

“Chess is a fun, competitive and educational game that teaches kids the same things that schools are – thinking ahead, considering consequences and making good choices,” said Krasnopolskiy.

Sts. Joachim and Ann Catholic School in St. Charles started a pilot chess club this year, open to students in second through eighth grade.

Parish volunteer Tony Cuccio helped get the program off the ground and helps coach the club, along with parent Mark Willard. Cuccio is a retired principal and teacher.

The group of 20 students meets for an hour, twice a month to play.

“We started the club to help students develop strategic thinking and critical thinking skills, to help them plan and put goals together as they learn a new discipline,” said Principal Debbie Pecher.

But it’s not all about the education for the kids.

Sixth-grader Tyler Mikkelsen joined the chess club because he thought it would be fun.

“I saw chess on the computer and iPod and I wanted to learn how to play,” said Mikkelsen.

He knew enough about chess to play around, but Cuccio explained the rules and strategy of the game. “Chess is a short brain game and I like puzzles,” Mikkelsen said.

Krasnopolskiy said the benefits of kids joining a chess club are endless.

“Our students are practicing skills that can help them in their everyday lives and make school easy. Their parents enjoy that we are teaching kids to think ahead and notice that their kids are doing more thinking before speaking,” Krasnopolskiy said.

South Middle School in the Wentzville School District also has a chess club. The club has about 70 students who meet twice a month to play both each other and the teachers in the building.

“I think as students (learn to) play the game they enjoy it and they enjoy the mental challenge,” said Scott Swift, SMS principal. “I don’t know if it is considered cool; however, the kids really enjoy it.”

The Fort Zumwalt School District has five chess clubs, including one at North, South and West middle schools, as well as at South and West high schools. Angie Percoraro, chess club sponsor at Fort Zumwalt West High, echoed other educators who stressed that the social aspect is as important as the mental challenge chess offers.

Percoraro said chess offers social interaction with other students with the same interest.

“Oftentimes, the kids don’t see all these great education benefits and join the club because it’s a fun game to play with friends and they enjoy the atmosphere,” said Krasnopolskiy.

On Dec. 13, CheckMates USA will host its first tournament – Chess Fest – at St. Elizabeth/St. Robert Catholic School in St. Charles.

“Our goal is to make it more than a tournament, but (also) a family event. It is specifically meant for kids from St. Charles, and we expect most of the participants to be from here,” Krasnopolskiy said.

While the chess players compete, parents can learn chess in one of the chess classes offered or they can watch a chess-themed movie.

“There will even be a simultaneous exhibition where a Grandmaster will play 20 people at the same time,” Krasnopolskiy said.

Proceeds from a silent auction held during the event will support a program to teach kids at local hospitals to play chess, according to Krasnopolskiy.

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