MERIDEN — Lukas Ramirez-Taylor and Thomas Hayes chatted idly as they traded moves, hovered over a chess board in Room 108 at Edison Middle School, Tuesday afternoon. The subjects of their conversation had nothing to do with the knights, bishops and pawns they moved and removed from the board.
They were among eight students gathered that day in what has become a weekly after-school ritual — chess club. Members compete against one another in timed matches. Some of those matches result in checkmates; others, stalemates.
Ramirez-Taylor, a seventh grader who is 12, was new to chess when he first joined.
“I wanted to learn the game,” he said. Based on how quickly Ramirez-Taylor contemplated and then moved his chess pieces during his match against Hayes, it appears that he has a solid understanding of the game’s fundamentals.
Hayes, who is also 12 and in seventh grade, has a few more years experience playing chess under his belt. He regularly plays with his father.
“I wanted to learn new strategies to beat my dad at chess,” Hayes said, adding, “I haven’t beat him yet. I’ve been close to checkmating him.”
Last week, Hayes said, he “checked” his father for the first time.
The club started off in March, explained its advisor John Grimaldi, a physical education teacher at Edison, who also coaches soccer at the school and sponsors several other after school groups as well. The club has met every Tuesday since then.
It was the brainchild of Edison Assistant Principal Janice Piña, who said she started the club because she is looking for opportunities to engage students. She learned from one student who has difficulty engaging that this student plays chess.
Some 30 students signed up for the early meetings, with membership tapering off due to students’ other commitments. Grimaldi said the group has maintained 18 members. Recently, team members competed in their first inter-school competition, when they traveled to a middle school in Waterbury. Edison is Meriden’s first middle school with a chess club. Four team members won all of their matches, Grimaldi said.
Grimaldi, a longtime chess aficionado, said when talk of starting a chess club at his school began, he agreed to take part.
“I was like, yeah, I’ll do it,” Grimaldi said. At the beginning, the group competed through online matches on Chess.com. The club has since acquired its own physical chess boards and timers.
“The kids have really been enjoying it.”
Grimaldi, as the club’s advisor, sees himself as “more of a facilitator” than a coach.
“All of the kids are pretty well-versed,” he said. “For the ones who are still learning, I was able to explain how the pieces move and the strategies to play.”
Grimaldi also helped students learn how to play timed matches — whether they are one-minute matches or 20-minute matches.
He gets as much enjoyment out of the club as his students do, describing it as one of the ”best” clubs he’s become involved with.
“It’s a blast. It really is…. It’s nice, because they’re all off their phones. They’re all engaged. They’re all interacting with each other,” Grimaldi said. Club members are constantly looking for another game to play and also watching their peers compete against each other.
“They’re gaining that experience watching other people and seeing how they move,” Grimaldi said. ‘Big learning curve’
Grimaldi acknowledged that there’s a “big learning curve” when it comes to establishing a new after school club, including figuring out logistics, like permission slips. Then there was teaching the game. Grimaldi said chess is a game that is best learned by continuously playing it.
Grimaldi said chess taught him “to slow down with what I’m doing and really look at things from every perspective. That’s an aspect of the game that he enjoys: the slowing down and processing information, before making a move.
“Take it one step at a time, because that’s how the game is. You’ve got to look at everything. You’ve got to see all the moves,” Grimaldi said.
Grimaldi hopes to see the club grow next year. Most of its members are in sixth and seventh grade, meaning they can come back next year. He also hopes to increase the number of inter-school competitions his team competes with, including hosting at least one competition at Edison.
Grimaldi’s pitch to new potential members who are new to chess: “Try something new. And step out of your comfort zone. It’s going to be difficult at first.”
According to Edison principal Erin Lyons-Barton, the club’s formation was led by Piña.
Piña said as she was establishing the club, one of the first things she sought out was a sponsorship, which came from Advanced Scaffold Services of New England. That funding helped provide the stipend for a teacher to lead the club. Then the chessboards came from the school district.‘Cognitively engaging’
Educators are pleased by what they’ve seen come out of the club’s formation so far.
“Chess is cognitively engaging. It’s very competitive as well. A lot of students need to engage in different competitive programs,” Piña said, adding she “was very humbly pleased with the outcome.”
“Certain kids that you would never think play chess, were right there playing chess. I’m excited. I can’t wait for next year,” Piña said, adding she hopes to reach out to other schools to organize monthly interscholastic matches.
“The students are really enjoying it,” said Lyons-Barton said, adding she was pleasantly surprised to see how many students signed up. She described it as a great opportunity for students, to compete against one another, their teacher, and against teams from other schools.
“It’s one more opportunity to teach them about logic, teamwork, all the math behind it, and strategy. These are just great soft skills for those kids,” Lyons-Barton said.
Students would compete in multiple matches that afternoon, including playing against Grimaldi.
Hayes said he enjoys the game because he sees the different moves of each piece — bishop, rook, queen or knight — as different ways to express himself. “I move in different ways in my life,” he said.
Eighth grader Abdiel Velazquez, 13, learned about the club through the school’s broadcast. He’s been with the club since it began. As Velazquez spoke, he competed against fellow club member Robbie Chow, 11, who is in sixth grade.
Velazquez enjoys the mental exercise of chess.
“I like the concept of being able to keep track of multiple things at once,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why I like playing this game.”