Competition got pretty fierce in the gym at the Chelsea Heights School in Atlantic City, but competitors never left their seats, battling instead with chess sets spread out on cafeteria tables.
“I like that it’s competitive,” said Emily Muller, 12, a student at New York Avenue School who has been playing for two years.
Emily said it’s more fun than video games, in which “you just sit there and look at the TV. In chess, you have to pay attention.”
More than 100 students from five city schools joined together to play each other and a master player Wednesday afternoon in the first Chess Day in the district. Chelsea Heights School Principal Kenneth Flood hopes the event will lead to a district tournament and more interest in the game.
“It’s a great game,” said Flood, whose two sons play and came in for the event. “It teaches patience, analyzing and problem solving.”
Students said they like the competitive aspect of the game and that playing with other people is more fun than playing a video game by yourself.
“You get to go against other people,” said Natalie Rosario, 10, a third-grader at the Chelsea Heights School.
Flood had arranged for instructor and U.S. Chess Federation Master Player Yaacov Norowitz, of Elizabeth, to play with the students. He invited the other local schools to participate as a way to bring all the clubs together. Teachers Jennifer Jewayni and Cara Surace helped organize the event.
High School Chess Club adviser Jim Burke came looking for potential recruits. His junior varsity team won its division in the South Jersey Chess League, but he said there are only about 24 high schools with teams in the league, compared with a couple of hundred in North Jersey.
Locally, his teams have played against Oakcrest and St. Augustine Prep, but he said the rest of the teams they play are far outside the county.
“I want to build the programs here for the future,” he said.
Cody Haas, 17, of Margate, a member of the high school team, got to play Norowitz and learned he still has a lot to learn.
“It was intimidating,” he said, “and a little scary.”
Many of the students had first learned to play at home, but like having others to compete against in school.
“I like meeting new people,” said Wilbert Sanchez,17, of Ventnor, whose father introduced him to chess at age 10.
“It gets your mind relaxed and focused,” he said.
The JV team’s top player, Osamah Bhutta, 15, of Atlantic City, said his brother taught him when he was in first grade. He likes the strategy of the game.
“He’s got a very attacking strategy,” Burke said.
Stephanie George, a first-grade teacher at New York Avenue School, coaches the chess club there. She said she jumped at the chance because she had learned chess when she was about 7 or 8 years old and really enjoyed playing.
“I’m not a master player,” she said. “But I teach them the rules, and about 15 students come out every week.”
Flood said he has added a second day for the club at Chelsea Heights School because so many students want to participate. The hallway leading to the gym was decorated in a chess motif for the event Wednesday, and bulletin boards featured sayings from famous chess players.
The event also featured a raffle for the chance to play with Norowitz, and a raffle to win one of 24 chess sets donated by the Cooper Levenson law firm in Atlantic City.
Norowitz said people who think chess is boring don’t understand it, and that once students do understand it, they love it. So how does he get them interested?
“I teach them how the pieces all work together, and that it’s like a battle,” he said. “It is exciting. And I let them win a few games.”
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