On Manhattan's Upper East Side, 18 kindergartners are staring at a large vinyl screen at the front of their classroom. But it's not a video they're watching -- it's a chess game. Amazingly for a group of energetic 5-year-olds, the kids sit still and listen raptly as a dapper gentleman with an eastern European accent points at the magnetic pieces on the hanging board, explaining excitedly that "chess is an art, a struggle, a science, a war!"
This is the Dalton School, a private academy in New York City, which has one of the country's first -- and best -- chess programs. Its director, Svetozar Jovanovic, started the program 18 years ago, and today all the school's students begin chess instruction in kindergarten. Those who remain interested after first grade join Dalton's after-school Chess Academy, whose team regularly wins local and national championships.
Barely three miles uptown, a classroom of equally attentive kindergartners is also transfixed by a vinyl chessboard. These are students at P.S. 194, a public school in Harlem. There, Nikki Church, an instructor from Chess-in-the-Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit organization, is greeted with applause at her weekly visit. "Let's put on our chess faces," Church says, helping kids find the calm they'll need to play. The students watch the board, and each time they see a piece captured, they shout, "Splat!" This school, too, has a winning chess team -- the Renaissance Warriors.
What the elite private academy and the inner-city public school both know is that "Chess makes you smart," a slogan of the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF). A growing body of research is showing that chess improves kids' thinking and problem-solving skills as well as their math and reading test scores. Accordingly, communities across the country are racing to create after-school chess programs and start local chess clubs, and some states -- New Jersey, for one -- have written chess into official school curricula.
The USCF has seen the number of scholastic members ages 14 and under soar in the last decade, from just over 3,000 in 1990 to more than 35,000 today. The game's image is changing too: It's going from geeky to groovy, thanks in part to pop-culture icons like rock star Sting and New York Knicks forward Larry Johnson, who boast of their chess prowess in interviews.