On Wednesday afternoons at Covington Elementary most students board the buses and head for home. But for 12 students who are signed up for Chess Wizards, magic awaits them in the school library.
The program, which is new to Covington Elementary this winter, features a wizard for a teacher who guides the students, who range from beginning chess players to more experienced and from kindergarten to sixth grade, through strategic moves, as well as how to play different variations of the game.
The Chess Wizards take teaching students chess seriously. And the wizard thing, too — the teacher dons a cape and a hat for class.
Teaching the group at Covington Elementary is Alec McQuinn, a wizard whose grandfather taught him to play.
“I was so young I don’t remember being taught,” McQuinn said. “I’ve always known chess.”
As the young protégés trickle in they immediately pair up and scramble into their seats, beginning the first round of games for the day.
McQuinn circulates around the tables; guiding and reminding, yet being careful not to give too much direction.
“I like teaching, I like chess, I like kids,” McQuinn said. “It all fits together perfectly. On top of it all I just enjoy watching kids have as much fun with chess as I did.”
And chess isn’t just about the game. It’s about learning to think creatively, plan ahead, consider possible outcomes and coming up with alternative solutions. Chess Wizards also introduces the students to playing competitively.
Typically each class begins with free play, then moves into a lesson on a particular aspect or strategy of the game.
For the lesson, everyone stops their game and gathers around a white board affixed with a large laminated chess board complete with pieces. Then students take turns answering questions and moving the pieces around the board, testing out what works and what doesn’t.
When they return to free play, the students discuss moves, pieces and what they like best about chess.
“Queens,” student Jolena Bryan said decisively of her favorite piece. “Because they are the most powerful.”
The students also help each other, discussing rules and moves and rooks versus knights.
“Beating people,” Evan Stave said impishly of his favorite part of the game.
A few minutes later Stave’s opponent, Nick Larsen, surveys his board before triumphantly making a move and throwing up his hands.
“That’s beast mode!” he exclaims.
The kids also learned a new version of chess at the March 5 class, called allies, where two students team up and combine boards, working together to conquer their opponents.
Angela Stave, the family and community engagement facilitator at the school, said Chess Wizards contacted the school about having a class on campus.
“They seemed very professional, excited and motivated,” Stave said. “It just seemed so positive and not like anything else we have here.”
Stave promptly signed her son up for the group and also recruited other kids to ensure there would be enough participation. Other parents have been impressed so far by what the program offers their kids.
“I want my kids to be involved in different activities,” said parent Jerusalem Gebrekidan, who has two children in Chess Wizards. “I want them to get the knowledge.”
Gebrekidan added that chess is a new activity for her son and daughter to play together.
“When they have time, instead of TV they are playing against each other,” she said.
Anna Marie Milewski said that her son, Kelson, is eager for another class to open this spring.
“He’s loving it,” Milewski said. “What we’ve noticed is he’s able to sit there and focus on the game. (He can) play to win and also understand how to lose.”
Milewski also said she appreciates the lifelong skills her son is learning.
“You can carry it through and play it with anyone who knows how,” Milewski said. “It’s a common platform that you can take with you.”