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Enthusiasts Use Chess To Bring Academic Growth to Urban Youths

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NEW YORK--The overcast dawn is barely breaking as children pour into a classroom at Community Elementary School 70 and begin eagerly laying out chessboards and setting up pieces.

As the 1st- and 2nd-grade boys and girls bolt through the door, many receive a playful squeeze from David MacEnulty as he hands out plastic bags full of chessmen.

A little while later, as he plays one match while kibitzing another, Mr. MacEnulty begins fielding questions from the young players around him that the chess club's parent-volunteers cannot answer.

"Mr. MacEnulty, is this checkmate?'' one child asks.

On this dreary fall day, Mr. MacEnulty is also battling an encroaching case of laryngitis.

But, during a lull in play, he walks to the blackboard and, struggling to make himself heard over the roar of traffic and sirens that drifts up from the Cross-Bronx Expressway several floors below, begins to explain intricate opening gambits and the value of the pawn.

He sets up two pawns on a special chessboard hanging up front and notes that one is in a very good position to "undermine'' the other.

Looking closely at the attentive faces around the room, he asks, "What does undermine mean?''

Greeted by an uncomfortable silence, he beckons to a student to join him at the board.

In a fluid motion that both surprises the victim and delights the audience, he takes the boy's arm and uses a martial-arts sweep-kick to knock away one leg and lower his victim to the floor.

"It means 'take away support,''' he declares.

A Full-Time Job

By 8:30 A.M., when the first bell of the day rings, the chess club breaks up as classes begin.

But, unlike most chess-club sponsors, Mr. MacEnulty's coaching doesn't end when the bell rings.

For him, the hourlong session is a warm-up to the teaching day, which he spends dashing from classroom to classroom with his chessboard and pieces, trying to lay the foundation for the "culture of chess'' he hopes to cultivate here amid the poverty, graffiti, and razor wire of the South Bronx.

The only full-time chess teacher in Community School District 9, and possibly the only one in the New York City school system, Mr. MacEnulty is working hard to make the game an integral part of the curriculum here.

He does so because success in the game can fulfill the promise that so many educational nostrums make, but seldom deliver on, he says.

By learning chess, he believes, students genuinely can develop "higher-order thinking skills'' that can improve their academic performance, and even change their lives.

Strong District Backing

Mr. MacEnulty credits the fact that he is teaching chess here to the foresight of Cliff Jackson, a district administrator. Mr. Jackson strongly believed that learning chess would help the poor, predominantly black and Hispanic students in the district develop the habits of mind that are key to overcoming the obstacles to academic success they face each day.

The chess program here builds on a strong foundation built by Mark Singer, a teacher who founded the extracurricular chess program and who continues to run early-morning sessions for advanced players.

But Mr. MacEnulty, a former Navy bandsman, professional actor, and real-estate agent, also credits the American Chess Foundation's "Chess-in-the-Schools'' program with setting him on the road to his newest career.

Since the mid-1980's, the program has sent highly qualified chess players from the prestigious Manhattan Chess Club into the public schools for six weeks at a time to distribute chessboards and pieces and plant the seed of curiosity about the game.

Teachers are expected to continue the momentum by acting as coaches and recruiting students to help teach their classmates.

The program, which reaches roughly 130 schools in the New York area, has had its share of successes.

The "Raging Rooks,'' a chess team from a Harlem junior high school, grew out of an initiative to teach the game in one of the most troubled neighborhoods in the city.

The team made national headlines in 1991 when, against all odds, it triumphed over competitors from prestigious public and private schools to tie for first place in a national competition.

Recently, the program opened affiliates to reach the largely poor and minority public school populations in Chicago; Dallas; Richmond, Calif.; San Francisco; and Tucson, Ariz..

Interest Growing Nationwide

Cognitive scientists are divided over whether the skills learned in chess actually translate into improved academic performance.

The International Business Machines Corporation commissioned a study of a Chess-in-the-Schools program at a Bronx elementary school with some of the lowest reading scores in the city.

While no direct correlation was found between chess and academic performance, the researchers concluded that students who learned chess improved their reading skills much faster than those who did not play the game.

Yet, the belief that the game promotes logical habits of mind appears to be largely responsible for the recent and growing popularity of chess in schools nationwide, says Sharon Brunetti, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Chess Federation.

The federation has begun receiving many more calls from educators asking for information on starting a chess program, she says, and they often are interested in using the game as an instructional strategy, rather than an extracurricular activity.

She also said that membership in the federation--the game's governing body--has grown from 50,000 to 70,000 in the last five years, with children and teenagers accounting for 90 percent of the growth.

The New Jersey legislature, meanwhile, recently passed a measure permitting school districts the option of offering chess instruction for gifted-and-talented and special-education students in 2nd grade.

The New York legislature is considering a similar measure, while lawmakers in Washington State recently passed a bill promoting the use of such "intellectual pursuits'' as bridge and chess in instruction.

Mr. MacEnulty, who was hired from the Chess-in-the-Schools program by Mr. Jackson, says that many students need more than the "quick fix'' offered by that program to fully cultivate the mental discipline chess requires.

But once they have mastered the essentials, he stresses, they will have learned that there are alternatives to the chaos and aimlessness that so often pervades their lives and hampers their efforts to succeed in school.

Stressing Logic and Order

Walking across a hectic schoolyard at C.E.S. 70, Mr. MacEnulty mentally adds up the number of K-2 students he teaches in a given week.

The total, he decides, somewhat amazed, is close to 300.

He is particularly pleased that in the kindergarten class he has just left, several students claimed to already know all about chess.

They may have been bluffing, Mr. MacEnulty says, but they may also have learned from older brothers and sisters he taught the previous year.

Mr. MacEnulty also is developing a curriculum specifically for teaching chess in public schools.

While numerous chess primers and handbooks exist, he notes, most were written by chess masters, who are not necessarily good teachers and who rarely have experience working with students like those at C.E.S. 70.

For example, when he tried to teach a kindergarten class where to place the rooks at the beginning of a game, he discovered that many students simply did not recognize the word "corner'' in anything but its most concrete sense--as the location of a neighborhood store.

To attempt to teach the complicated moves of pawns, bishops, knights, and queens without first addressing such deficiencies would be self-defeating, he says.

Still, his performance in the classroom is kinetic and enthusiastic as he attempts to impart not only knowledge about how to play the game itself, but also the history, sociology, and politics behind the nature of the pieces and the way they move.

Laying out the pieces for a kindergarten class, he explains that while the point of chess is to capture the king, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board. He also points out that all of the other pieces are drawn up as opposing armies

"They're going to fight to save the king,'' he says. "But you know what's nice about this fight? Nobody gets hurt.''

Later, in a 2nd-grade class, children learn about diagonal lines by coloring mimeographed paper chessboards as a prelude to learning how the bishop moves.

Though seemingly a facile exercise, Mr. MacEnulty notes, it is also a lesson in spatial geometry.

Spanish-speaking children in a bilingual class are taught that the role of the lowliest piece of the all, the pawn, is often the most complicated to understand because its potential moves are so varied.

In every class, Mr. MacEnulty repeatedly stresses the logic behind the game.

"Here, on this board, there is order,'' he says. "There's a sequence of things that can happen, and you can foresee them and you can prepare for them.''

As he walks to his final class of the day, a colleague passes on some news that appears to contradict his firmly held belief.

Mr. Jackson, the administrator who hired him, she says, has died earlier that morning.

Visibly shaken, Mr. MacEnulty struggles through his next class.

On the subway ride to the after-school private lessons he teaches to make ends meet, he admits he is concerned that Mr. Jackson's death may threaten the future of the fledgling chess program and the curriculum they were developing together.

Even so, he hopes one day to create the critical mass of players needed to field his dream "championship chess team from the South Bronx.''

"These kids love to compete,'' he says. "It would give them the opportunity to prove that they can win.''

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