“Think first,” Maria Valderrama reminded her son, Gabriel, right before he moved his white queen within striking distance of his sister’s black knight.
“Think first,” she said, “and then move.”
Gabriel Torres, 7, recognized his peril and saved himself, if only temporarily. His younger sister, Kamila, 5, caught him in checkmate five moves later.
The Torres children are two of a handful of West New York children taking advantage of the free chess club and classes the town’s public library began offering in December. The program was originally started as a counterpart to the library’s English as a Second Language classes, which are geared primarily toward adults.
“We noticed that a lot of kids would just come in and sit on the computer,” said Albeiro Raigosa, the library’s event coordinator. “And that’s totally fine; it’s just that the computer does everything for you, so we wanted to find a way for them to use their brains.”
“It helps improve patience and builds concentration, so it’s great for children.” -local chess teacher Radames Menendez
“Chess is a science,” he said. “It helps improve patience and builds concentration, so its great for children, especially when they’re this young.”
West New York is no stranger to chess. The game is well ingrained into Cuban culture, mostly because of Jose Raul Capablanca, the local club’s namesake. Widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, Capablanca held the world title from 1921 to 1927 and was so good that he even created his own version of the game. Growing sick of players striving to achieve draws, or stalemates, rather than victories, he created a board with two extra pieces, each of which could individually checkmate an opponent’s team.
Each Saturday, West New York’s adult players gather at the club on 6018 Hudson Ave. to practice their own skills. When they’re older, Menendez said, his students will be welcome to join the club.
The effort, Raigosa said, is to give children an alternative to hanging out on the streets.
“Instead of having them somewhere else, where they might run into problems, it’s better to have them here,” Raigosa said. “It’s a fun, educational alternative to being on the streets.”
Chess has long been praised for the positive effects it has been noted to have on inner city youth. In 2012, the documentary “Brooklyn Castle” focused on the chess team at Intermediate School 318 in the South Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, which has long-dominated the junior divisions of New York City’s competitive chess circuits.
Honing their skills
Most of the children who attend the classes, which are held Wednesday nights from 6 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. and Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., are around Gabriel and Kamila’s age, and are just being introduced to the game. But despite only being in their third month of instruction, most of the children have shown natural flair for the game.
“I think I’m getting good,” said Gabriel, despite losing to his sister on Tuesday. “I practice at home with my mom and Kamila. Each game I’m a little better.”
Valderrama, who learned the game from her father when she was a child, has brought her children to the library for every session since the club’s inception.
“I learned the game as a child, how the pieces move and a bit of the strategy,” she said. “So when I heard about the classes, we signed up.”
Valderrama said she was most concerned about Kamila, who she didn’t think would be interested or focused enough to keep up with the classes.
“I thought she would be so bored, but she is so focused,” she said.
“It’s fun,” said Kamila. “I like chess club. I want to keep playing.”
Menendez teaches via the board, a book by the legendary player Bobby Fischer, and a computer program that simulates strategies and movements. He said that in the future, he thinks his students will have reached the level where they can stand aside Hudson County’s best.
“We eventually want to have them compete, and form a sort of children’s team for the town,” said Raigosa.
Menendez estimated that his students might be ready for competitive play in another three or four months.
“Come back in three months,” he said, with a wink and a smile. “You’ll see.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org