Learning chess - champion style

More and more schools across the U.S. are incorporating chess as a way to increase their students’ academic performance. Elena Donaldson couldn’t agree more.

World chess champion teaches kids at Bellevue Boys and Girls Club

More and more schools across the U.S. are incorporating chess as a way to increase their students’ academic performance. Elena Donaldson couldn’t agree more.

Donaldson is a three-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion, two-time Russian Women’s Champion and World Women Olympic Champion. And if that’s not enough, she was also a 1986 runner-up for the World Championship title.

Now she runs a chess school at the Bellevue Boys and Girls Club.

Donaldson’s passion for chess and her desire to see children succeed academically prompted her to develop a method she calls “Chess Academy.” This method, she said, when applied to 5- and 6-year-olds, develops skills that will benefit them throughout their life.

“Five- and 6-year-olds need it [chess] for education,” Donaldson said.

It is important to get kids involved with chess before grade three if they are to have any long-lasting change in their brain, Donaldson added. After grade three, “You don’t see the same results because their brain is already developed.”

Chess is a way for older kids to have self-confidence, inspiration and a means of personal expression in a social activity — not everyone is good at music or athletics, she said, and every student in school needs to have some activity they’re good at.

Donaldson said there are only three rules to be a talented chess player: “Parental involvement, passion for the game and effort.”

Donaldson believes all students should be involved in a chess program, but emphasized that it is critical between ages of 5 to 7. But she said it can’t be just any chess program.

“It has to be an intensive chess program — it has to be academic,” she said.

“If you put your 5- to 7-year-old in chess for one or two years, they will all be good at math,” she said.

Donaldson was winding down the second of three one-week chess camps at the Bellevue Boys and Girls Club. They meet Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Camps typically have about 30 kids per session, but this week’s camp of six was small because of the July 4th holiday.

Today’s group has five boys and one girl between age 7 and 11, and the kids are anything quiet. Several had just received medals from Donaldson for their various accomplishments such as finishing workbooks or winning a tournament. They are all eager to get back to their game.

Although it is 2:30 p.m. and their day is coming to an end, they all appear as excited and engaged in their respective games as though they’d just begun their day.

Archana, 11, the oldest of the group, said that “chess rocks!” She started playing just a couple of months ago and said she really likes it.

Sasikala Einstein, Archana’s mother, said this was Archana’s second camp with Donaldson; the first was a couple of months ago at Woodinville Montessori, Bothell campus. Einstein said they had heard about Donaldson’s chess program through friends and was impressed by Donaldson’s World Class Champion status.

Kurt, 8, attends Bellevue Children’s Academy and said he started chess about a year ago. Kurt’s father, Edwin Rhim, said his son has participated in chess club at his school once a week since about January.

“He really got into it and it gave us something to do together at home during the winter time when he couldn’t go play outside.”

Rhim said he wanted his son to learn chess because it teaches them patience and reasoning, “thinking skills that he doesn’t really get from his school classes.”

Randy Wilkens, senior athletic director of the Boys and Girls Club, said Donaldson approached them with the idea of chess classes about a year ago and that there appeared to be an interest in it.

“If there is an interest, we try to provide it,” he said.

Andy Main, athletic director of the Boys and Girls Club, said they hosted the Scholastic Chess Tournament that was a qualifier for the state championship. There were about 100 participants. They also hosted three individual chess tournaments this year. Although the individual tournaments have fewer participants, Main said, “They draw kids from Spokane to Vancouver.”

He said that Donaldson’s reputation as a World Champion draws kids from all over Washington state to participate in her chess camps and classes.

Alice Chang, mother of camp participant Roger, 9, who lives in Vancouver, Wash., said the chess camps at the Boys and Girls Club are a “big attraction because of the teacher.”

Donaldson’s assistant teacher, Seattle Pacific University sophomore Curtis Thillips, said he found the position on SPU’s job board and “thought it would be a great opportunity” to work alongside Donaldson.

“I’ve played chess since elementary school, but only recreationally. They [school] didn’t emphasize chess as much then. It seems like it’s really grown in popularity,” he said.

Chess camps at the main Bellevue Boys and Girls Club are offered during Bellevue School District breaks and cost $220 a week or $75 a day; although, Main said, children are never turned away if they can’t afford to pay.

Donaldson also offers ongoing classes for beginner and intermediate chess players on Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m. and for more advanced students, 4 to 7 p.m. at the Boys and Girls Club. These cost $45 for two hours. She also offers private lessons for $80, which take place twice a month at her home.

Tara Fuller is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.