Alex Vergilesov moves a bishop to the center of an empty chess board, and then takes a moment to contemplate the grid. He places six opposing pawns on random squares, which eventually displays a clear path of diagonal destruction for his centered piece.
“You have to move the bishop around the board and take a pawn with every move,” he says. “And we’re going to sit and think about the answer for 15 seconds – in silence.”
Three seconds pass, and the first hand shoots into the air. Four more go up beside it.
After two more ticks of the clock, a first-grader can no longer bear the stillness, and finally yells out: “I know!” Fifteen times in a row - all apparently falling on deaf ears. Though his instructor's only response is another glance at the clock, the boy’s wrist stays stretched eight inches out of his sleeve.
The six-year old mind is young for a game as deep as chess, and maybe half of the dozen outstretched arms can find the correct series of moves. And though this is clear with every puzzle, Vergilesov continues to create them, placing each of the major chess pieces to swallow up a new line of pawns. And with each example, he makes sure to stop the class.
Stop to think.
“Chess teaches a child that you can think about something before you answer,” Vergilesov says about his basic, learn-to-play sessions that reach nearly 60 different classrooms around St. Louis county. “I think that is its big value: forward thinking.”
The effects from that moment of pause haven’t just been realized by Vergilesov. Through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, his In-School Program seeks to prove that chess can positively affect the academic performance of its students.
The Scholastic Center is partnered with America’s Foundation for Chess (AF4C), which drives the First Move program into the nation's schools. The supplemental curriculum uses chess as a learning tool in the classroom to support academic, social and emotional goals for its students, using the game to teach life applications, such as respecting rules and how to lose.
The program is designed specifically for second- and third-grade classrooms, and will reach nearly 50,000 children across 27 states this year. Since 2009, the Scholastic program has nearly tripled its numbers, now encompassing nearly 1,000 kids in 80 classrooms around St. Louis.
The efforts fell in stride with the goals of the Rockwood School District, which has implemented an Enrichment Hour into its 19 elementary schools to introduce a new sport or hobby to young students.
Fueled by an existing chess club and vocal PTO at Chesterfield Elementary, Rockwood had been seeking a chess option for its students when the Scholastic Center landed in its summer expo. The two groups shared obviously similar goals.
“Chesterfield was a little unique – the parents wanted to offer chess all year round,” Regan said. "When there is a big response, of course we would make that happen.”