Video: Chess Class

All of Ron Robertson’s remaining chess pieces were gathered safely along the back of the board.

Nicole Foster’s small army was advancing.

“She’s making me run,” Robertson said. “She’s making me run.”

Foster could just smile and laugh. Both East Baton Rouge Parish school teachers were first-time chess players.

While Foster’s strategy worked, she didn’t know what to do next. Chess coach Robert L. Myers, from Houston, crouched next to the board.

“You’ve got some great stuff,” he told her. “You have to find it. ... You have to see it.”

Chess can be an amazing teaching tool, said Jerry Nash, director of educational research and training for the U.S. Chess Federation. The game helps develop several skills that students need in the 21st century, he said.

“How do I analyze this problem? How do I persist? How do I weigh alternatives?” Nash said. “These are sort of inherent in the game. Every problem is essentially a mathematical problem.”

Nash’s workshops — called “Chess, Common Core and Critical Thinking” — at the school system’s Professional Development Center filled up early with 90 teachers, and July’s follow-up program is almost full, he said. About 5 percent of East Baton Rouge Parish’s 3,500 public school teachers may take the workshop this summer.

The workshops aim to create a “chess culture” in the schools. The Foundation for East Baton Rouge Parish School System sponsored the workshops with funding from an anonymous donor and a $10,000 grant from ExxonMobil, said Kathryn Kissam, board president of the foundation. Teachers received chess sets for their classes and a teaching board that hangs in the front of the room.

“What chess is really about is kids learning to cope in life,” said assistant superintendent Carlos Sam, who stopped by to address the teachers.

Most teachers who attend the workshop have never played chess, Nash said. Learning the complex game teaches them to empathize with their students.

“Part of what I’m helping them experience is what their students experience when they’re learning new concepts,” Nash said.

They learned chess tactics and etiquette in each session.

You are your king, Nash taught them. Never put yourself at risk.

“When you have a good move, sit on your hands,” Myers said. “Don’t think with your fingers. Don’t touch it until you know where you want it to go.”

They learned to play against a clock on the last day. Each player had five minutes, a style of play that develops essential skills for today’s school and career world — time management and thinking under pressure.

Each would tap and stop the clock after making a move.

“Don’t slam the clock,” Nash told them. “This isn’t Hollywood.”

Four players at each table competed among themselves.

Foster, a science teacher at Woodlawn Middle School, said, “It is really helping me to think about alternative solutions and multiple paths instead of just thinking one step ahead.”

For Robertson, a physical education teacher at Glen Oaks Park Elementary School, a human chess game in the gym could teach goal-setting.

“Your first move it works, but your second move, you’re really thinking more advanced,” he said. “It will help them think instead of this school year, it will help them think five years (ahead).”

As for their game, Robertson was still seeking a way to attack the middle of the chess board and Foster’s queen.

“I was a fox,” he said. “She was hunting.”