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North End library introduces youngsters to an old game -- chess

Posted by Roy Greene  November 12, 2012 12:53 PM

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(Sarina Tracy)


Eight-year-old Joseph, left, and 8-year-old Vinny, right, go head-to-head in a game of chess. (See photo gallery.)

In a room filled with SAT prep books and teen fiction novels, little hands move chess pieces across the boards as “teacher” Jannelle Richardson observes closely.

Richardson, the North End Library’s chess mentor, is the teaching force behind the Kids Chess Group. Each month, she ends her workday in Copley Square and commutes home to the North End to instruct children in this age-old game.

“I’ve been playing since I was 6 and competitively since I was 10,” says Richardson, 28, who works at a digital marketing company. “At some point I said, ‘I graduated from college, I have a job, and something is missing.’ And it was this.”

And so, each month, the library welcomes children of all levels of chess experience to play against each other while receiving one-on-one instruction. Beginner and intermediate players are welcome from 4 to 6 p.m. During that time, the North End Library on Parmenter Street becomes chess central.

On one recent Thursday, Richardson went over the basics of algebraic chess-notation with four of her students. The system, which uses only numbers and letters to record moves and positions, was new to some. As they recorded their moves on worksheets, questions arose.

“Why do we have to do this?” inquired 8-year-old Vinny.

“Because if you went anywhere in the world, the system would be the same,” Richardson said. “If you went to Spain, you could play chess with anyone there. You would understand their moves, and you would understand theirs.”

“Oh. Okay,” replied Vinny, jotting down his move with a pencil. And the game continued.

Chess, for the uninitiated, is a board game that sends white army against black army. One side wins when it pins the opposing king in a final gambit called “checkmate.”

As many as 18 children at once have filed into the library for Richardson’s chess group. Long tables are set up in the middle of the children’s section with match-style seating, fully equipped for an official chess game. At the recent session, 8-year-old Vinny, 8-year- old Joseph, 9-year-old William and 12-year-old Maggie listened intently to the teacher.

One of Richardson’s tactics in teaching the students is speaking in terms of dollars. While watching Vinny take one of Joe’s chess pieces, she asked him, “Is that a good exchange?”

Vinny thought for a moment, taps his finger, and puts his piece back to its original square.

“It’s so funny,” Richardson said. “You can see the light bulb go off and you think, ‘Wow. They’re learning.’”

For a few of the students, chess is a staple not just in the library, but at home as well. William, 9, is already well-acquainted with the game.

“I beat my dad in chess a lot,” he said with a smile. “And he can beat the computer on hard-mode!”

William’s dad, Carl Blake, didn’t have far to bring his son for the chess group. His family lives just a few blocks away.

“I love chess and [William] loves it too,” he said. “It’s nice [for him] to get instruction and play with other kids.”

Other Bostonians like Catherine O’Byrne, the mother of Vinny and Maggie, said the library is a great stopping place for them on the way home from school.

“Vinny goes to St. John’s School, so it’s very close for us,” O’Byrne said. “We live in the South End, but we always make sure we’re here for the club. The kids love coming here and Jannelle is great.”

As the library closed, so did the lesson. Kids zipped up their coats, thanked Richardson, and filed out with their parents. As they walked away, Richardson noted that for her, chess isn’t just about moving bishops and knights across a board. It’s about life.

“It has a lot of lessons in it that people don’t realize,” Richardson explained, as she packs away the chess pieces. “It takes a kid who’s excited about playing, but then they start thinking. And they don’t realize that they’re thinking, they’re thinking about the next move. And they say, ‘Hm, okay, so if I do this, what’s going to happen to me next? What’s my opponent going to do?’ And these are life lessons whenever you are in the world, making a decision or a choice.”

Knowing how to make decisions, she said, is a huge advantage to the children as they grow.

“You have to think about the next move as well as the consequences or benefits. So, it’s giving kids a game-format for life lessons that they can take everywhere.”

This article was reported and written by as part of collaboration between the Globe and Emerson College.

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