Zachary Schneider, who was almost too small for his Braves cap, sat stone still staring at a chess board in the Weehawken Subway shop with a look so intense that anyone watching would never notice he is only 5.
“I’m definitely better than my dad,” Zachary said as he hopped on alternating feet next to the chair he chose not to sit down in for an interview (because it would tear him away from his beloved chess game). For a moment, he was a typical young boy. But as soon as chess became the topic of conversation, his precociousness kicked in again.
“I love practicing scenarios to figure out the checkmate,” he said. “When you have powerful pieces on the board, you can control a lot of space and capture a lot of the other pieces.”
“Chess is like magic….There’s almost no limit to what you can do.” – Adam Cooke
“Can I go play now?” he said as he inched back toward worthy opponent Hugo Felber, also 5, also with a game face that would easily intimidate any adult player into a quick loss.
“To be honest, when I heard about this club, I pictured Hugo throwing the board up in the air along with the chess pieces,” Weehawkenite Susie Felber, Hugo’s mom, said with a chuckle. “It is absolutely incredible to see the concentration in these kids’ faces while they play. I just wish more parents knew this club existed and how amazing Peter is with them.”
“The most important message to parents, I think, is to never underestimate how young a child can begin to learn chess,” Croce said. “Their minds are like sponges, and they retain a lot of information from the game subconsciously, which comes out in incredible ways as they grow into it; both in chess and in life.”
Teacher, master, and mentor
“Adults simply aren’t as dedicated as children,” Croce said. A Union City resident, he has taught chess to those of all ages for around 12 years all around Hudson County. “Not that they’re bad students, but they always have somewhere to go. If I held chess club seven days a week, the kids would be here seven days a week.”
While Croce has played chess all his life, he was never properly trained, he said. After his divorce 15 years ago, he found he had a lot of time on his hands, and a friend recommended he take up a hobby.
One day he had an opportunity to sit down across from a chess grand master.
“He killed me,” Croce said. His opponent told him to study up, and so he buried himself in chess books and found he couldn’t put them down. Croce learned everything about the game, from strategy to history to the benefits that reach far beyond the game itself.
“I’m very knowledgeable, but I’m older,” he said. “When kids take on chess, their learning curve is off the charts.”
And so he began to teach all over Hudson County in after school programs and in club settings.
He eventually amassed over 8,000 students who, under his devoted tutelage, have won over 150 chess champion trophies and more than 45 team championship trophies across the state since 2001.
He began the Weehawken club around three months ago. It’s held every Monday beginning at 6:30 p.m. at the Pathmark Tower Plaza Subway shop. Parents either drop their kids off or hang around and have a sandwich while they watch in awe how well Croce leads them.
“He speaks to them like they are adults,” Hobokenite Shari Pople, Alex and David’s mother, explained. “I am so impressed with the way he inspires them to concentrate and listen, and how he encourages the game to draw them in.”
Benefits beyond the game
“It’s almost a myth that chess is a game of intellect,” Croce explained. “It is strategic and requires pattern recognition, and it is fantastic for developing cognitive thinking skills. There’s a reason why they recommend the game for Alzheimer’s patients.”
While anyone can learn, and the game has been used as a form of therapy for those with certain illnesses affecting the brain, Croce believes strongly in the benefits chess has on very young children. He suggests introducing them as early as 3, and placing them in more formal training at around 4 or 5.
“Their minds are open and not filled with so many useless things like ours,” Croce said. “I always have my kids play stronger players. It’s one of the only games you can excel at by losing, because you learn from your mistakes.”
Which is a great lesson for young people and adults alike, he added. It teaches sportsmanship, social skills, and patience, and it certainly keeps the mind active.
“Chess is like magic because, well, it basically is,” chess club member Adam Cooke, 9, explained. “There are so many patterns and so many options, there’s almost no limit to what you can do.”
For more information on Peter Croce and his chess clubs, visit hudsoncountychess.tripod.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at email@example.com