For kids, it’s all about chess
By Lia Russell
NICE Moves with Susan Polgar
Ask most young people what they enjoy doing that’s “free, fun and funky,” and you probably don’t expect to hear “chess.” But a local initiative describes the strategic board game in just that way, and it has children flocking to Lamberts Point Recreation Center every Wednesday to play nice – make that NICE, Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence.
Jeda Leavelle is among those kids. She’s 8 years old and has been playing chess for five years. “Once you know what you’re doing, it’s not that hard,” the Larchmont Elementary second-grader said.
Jeda plans to play in a tournament next weekend hosted by NICE. On Friday and Saturday, the Virginia Queens All-Girl Championship Tournament will be held at Norfolk State University, offering a first in Virginia: the chance for a female to take a state championship title from an all-girls chess tournament. After the tournament, the top player in each of two categories – rated (those who are members of U.S. Chess Federation) and unrated (those with no tournament experience) – will go on to vie in the national championships.
Scholarships and bragging rights are at stake, but the game offers much more. Jeda was one of about 25 children who recently gathered for the weekly after-school program that teaches and promotes chess. She is a regular participant and adheres to the program’s most important rule: Finish homework first. “Playing chess makes me feel proud of myself,” Jeda said.
Increased self-esteem is just one of the goals of NICE, founder and director Lisa Suhay said. “Chess helps kids improve their critical thinking skills,” she said. “Studies have confirmed that playing chess once a week for one year can almost double a student’s standardized test scores.” Chess also helps children with focus and life strategies, according to the U.S. Chess Federation. For girls, it has the added benefit of urging them toward science and math studies – subjects typically dominated by boys. While NICE is open to everyone in the community, including adults, one of its immediate goals is to open the sport of chess to girls.
The statistics tell the story: Of 1,100 International Grandmasters in the world, only two dozen are women, and the only one from the United States is Susan Polgar, a Hungarian-born naturalized citizen. Polgar, a four-time world chess champion and founder of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence, will be in Norfolk for the tournament next weekend to support NICE and encourage female partici pation in the game. The top winners also will have the opportunity to play in the Susan Polgar Foundation Girls’ Chess Invitational in St. Louis in July. “Chess can give girls self-confidence and is a tool to show that they are equal in areas that society says is reserved for boys,” Polgar said. Polgar, who started playing at age 4, said people often tried to discourage her from chess in her youth.
“They viewed me like I was from Mars because I wanted to play a boys’ game,” she said. “Even today there is a stigma, but it was much worse then.” The ideal time for children to begin playing chess is between ages 4 and 6, Polgar said.
Arthur Bowman, a biology professor at Norfolk State University, agrees with Polgar and often stops by Lamberts Point Recreation Center to play. He brings along NSU students to serve as mentors to the children. “This program is wonderful for the children and for the community,” Bowman said. “It’s a grass-roots initiative, but it’s really something big.”
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
NICE is a community partnership among Norfolk Public Schools; the Chrysler Museum of Art; Hackworth Reprographics; Navy Chess; Norfolk State and Old Dominion universities; teachers; parents; The Virginian-Pilot; the Norfolk
Department of Recreation, Parks and Open Space; and the Carnegie Math and Science Initiative for Girls.
Virginia Queens All-Girl Championship Chess Tournament Friday what Opening Ceremony and Grandmaster Exhibition by Susan Polgar where Chrysler Museum of Art when 3 to 6 p.m. cost Free Saturday what Tournament Registration and Play where Norfolk State University, New Student Center when Registration: 9 to 9:30 a.m. (though advance registration at www.nicechess. net is encouraged); tournament play: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. cost
Registration and participation are free. For more details www.nicechess. net.