Two years ago, Chelsea Heights Middle School eighth-grader Alberto Rosario didn't know the difference between a rook and a pawn. Now, he's the top middle school chess player in the Atlantic City school district.
On June 11, Alberto was crowned grand champion after defeating his chess rival and fellow Chelsea Heights student Marc Motta at the city's first districtwide chess tournament.
"It feels really good," the 14-year-old said of his win. "It's the first time I ever won a chess tournament, and the first time I've ever been entered in one."
Chelsea Heights Middle School Principal Ken Flood brought chess into the school district at the start of the 2011-12 school year when he established the school's weekly chess club.
The club, which is coached by northern New Jersey-based chess tutors and nationally ranked masters Yaacov Norowitz and Mikhail Kruglyak, was an instant success, and this year added a second weekly meeting. Flood and administrative assistant Jennifer Jewayni also have sought to expand the game's prominence in Atlantic City schools, organizing districtwide chess teaching days at Chelsea Heights so all the city's students can benefit from the masters' instruction.
With the game growing in popularity among his students and others, Flood said, hosting a tournament was the natural next step.
"All the students were just hungry for a tournament," Flood said. "They were hungry for the competition."
Kruglyak began playing chess in his native Ukraine when he was just 4 years old. He immigrated to New Jersey in 1992 at age 10, meeting and befriending Norowitz through the game, despite knowing little English and Norowitz speaking no Russian.
When he and Norowitz first started teaching the club, the students knew little about chess, but now they have become proficient at the game. Establishing a chess culture at the school, he said, can only be to the students' benefit.
"The statistics are very positive," Kruglyak said. "The kids that play chess, they perform better on standardized tests and they go on to have a brighter future and get more undergraduate degrees and get better positions in the world."
Norowitz and Kruglyak went to school together and shared a chess teacher, who early on realized their potential, bringing them to tournaments. In the years since, their prowess on the chess board has taken them around the world.
While Norowitz, like Kruglyak, believes chess offers academic benefits for players, the fun of the game also makes it compelling for kids.
"There's very few things you can enjoy from, literally, ages 4 or 5 or 6 till when you're 96," Norowitz said. "It's just something you can really enjoy for your whole lifetime."
Sixty-four students from Pennsylvania Avenue, New York Avenue, Martin Luther King and Chelsea Heights schools attended the tournament and were divided into groups according to skill level. Each skill level was given first-, second- and third-place trophies, and all participants received T-shirts.
Alberto and Marc, who competed in the advanced tier, are the most dedicated chess players in Chelsea Heights club, and often spar. Regardless of whether either goes on to become a master, Flood said, they're sure to benefit from their play.
"It works all around," Flood said. "These are life skills these young men have developed behind the chess board that they'll use in their everyday life."
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