More Than A Game

A fourth-year's advocacy initiative teaches local elementary school students life skills through chess
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Photo by: 
Natalia Wilson
When I go into [the] school and see how enthusiastic they are every day, that just inspires me to be a better teacher and be a better person
Sharan Subramanian
Class of 2018

Fourth-year Sharan Subramanian is pushing the UChicago Chess Club to not just play the game, but also to teach it.

In 2014, Subramanian created his own initiative within the University of Chicago Chess Club called Invest in Chess, a volunteer organization that teaches the rules of this timeless game to elementary school students at Andrew Carnegie Elementary School on 61st street.

Chess Club is one of the smaller RSOs on campus—while a number of students come to a few meetings a quarter just to make sure their chess skills don’t get rusty, there are only six to eight core members that consistently meet twice a week to play games and prepare for tournaments. Invest in Chess marks the club’s first attempt to reach outside the campus walls and teach chess in a local school.

Subramanian has been a chess player all his life, and played competitively in high school. Invest in Chess serves as a way for him to “keep in touch” with the game and allows him to share some of chess’s amazing benefits.

“What’s so unique about chess is how it relates to life,” he said. “Whether it be planning ahead [or] critical thinking, I think that it’s virtually indisputable that certain skills that chess teaches you are not only applicable in school but also helpful in life.”

Chess has been proven to promote brain growth, spark creativity, improve reading comprehension, and promote discipline. But, it’s also a great way to make new friends and have fun.

“Kids just like playing games, they like being able to play games with their friends,” said Darcy Linde, fourth-year and club president. “I think there’s something simple enough about chess that you can pick it up and have fun with it right away even if you’re not good.”

Each week, Subramanian, Linde, and second-year Cale McCormick lead an after-school chess club to help kids navigate the game.

Andrew Carnegie Elementary had been trying to encourage its students to play chess for some time. But the initial chess program was struggling as the school couldn’t find many teachers familiar enough with the game. Kids would try to learn with instructional YouTube videos, which were often hard to follow.

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That’s when Invest in Chess stepped in. Starting in 2015, Subramanian and his peers would split up to teach class in different classrooms.

Eventually, Subramanian asked the principal to create an after-school club for the more dedicated players.

Parent Natalia Wilson said that the club has had a positive impact on the students and her son Victor likes feeling as though he’s part of a team.

“[Victor] likes the friends he is making in the chess club, and as one of the younger members last year, I think he felt really good about being friends with a bunch of older kids,” said Wilson. “I think it gives him confidence, not just getting to know the older kids, but finding something he can do well, and something he was able to contribute to.”

Victor and his fellow students from Carnegie displayed their chess prowess at a  tournament against Pershing Elementary, another Chicago Public School in June. Teachers and families gathered in the atrium of the Gordon Center on UChicago’s campus to support their students as they squared off against one another.

Each student was paired with somebody from the opposite school. Winning a game garnered  your school one point, and a tie provided  each player with half a point. At the end of three hours, the school with the most points won.

After each game, the student and his or her opponent  discussed the strategies and decisions made in that round. It’s a way to learn from your mistakes or even make a new friend.

At the end of the tournament, each player was awarded a medal and the top players received an extra trophy. Aided by the Chess Club’s instruction, Andrew Carnegie Elementary came on top.

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While the match was partly meant to be a fun exercise for students from both schools, it’s also educational, helping kids develop their critical thinking skills.

In the future, Andrew Carnegie Principal Docilla Pollard hopes to work closely with Invest in Chess to help her students compete on a larger scale.

“The partnership with Invest in Chess has been a great benefit to Carnegie's instructional program,” said Pollard. “​Chess in the ​classroom help students learn to analyze, plan, and execute on the chessboard and in life. [The game] has improved not only academic scores, but social performance as well.”

Subramanian says that Invest in Chess has also been valuable for his own personal growth, allowing him to be a teacher, mentor and friend to Carnegie’s students.

“Going to [Carnegie] to teach has been a great community-building experience,” said Subramanian. “These experiences are something we’re able to remember for the rest of our lives, being able to teach in these schools, being able to build these friendships with these kids.

“When I go into [the] school and see how enthusiastic they are every day, that just inspires me to be a better teacher and be a better person.”

Tagged: chess, uchicago, invest in chess, university of chicago, andrew carnegie elementary, elementary schools