Home News and Features The Brain Game: Vermont Chess Championships

The Brain Game: Vermont Chess Championships

Vermont Scholastic Elementary School Chess Championships, fall 2021, at the Capital City Grange Hall. Photo by Corinne Cooper.
What if there was a magical pill that could give your child a boost in their IQ, promote their critical thinking, improve their memory, help them to better utilize both sides of their brain, increase creativity, improve math and reading skills, strengthen self discipline, build confidence, and reduce their screen time? 

There is no pill (and if there was, it would definitely have side effects) but there is chess. According to research, learning to play chess gives a young child all of the above. With high school, middle school, and elementary school state championships coming up next month in Berlin, some local students might be practicing even more than usual.

Are young kids really ready for that kind of challenge? Research tells us they’re more than ready. Young children’s brains have greater neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt and change) than adults. We see the results of that in the way they learn languages more quickly and in the way they learn chess. Both children and adults can be good chess players but kids can learn and improve more rapidly. 

So, why aren’t all families pushing their kids into chess? Why isn’t it a part of all school curriculums? Many families do, and many schools are adding it to the curriculum. But there’s a catch. If your child is to gain from involvement in chess, they have to enjoy the game. The positive effects of chess on the developing brain will be undermined if kids feel forced to play. Experts advise beginning in a playful way and with the least amount of pressure. A child might begin as a preschooler, but some advise waiting until about seven. Your child needs to be mature enough to accept a few game-playing basics, for example, the idea that taking turns is generally considered to be a good thing and the painful truth that if one person wins, another has to lose. 

Regardless of the age they begin, some parents may find their children more interested in learning chess since the screening of the film “The Queen’s Gambit.” The 2020 movie also reminded young girls that the game is for everyone.

Russell LaMantia is a physics teacher at Enosburg Falls High who’s starting a chess club at the school. LaMantia wishes more people played, especially today. 

“There’s a level of reflection needed to consider all the moves possible or probable, as well as empathy when trying to understand the reaction each move will cause in your opponent,” he says. “These are two things that the pandemic (or social media or a combination of both) have taken from our students. I hope chess can help give it back.”

LaMantia’s 13-year-old daughter Kate adds, “Kids who struggle with patience … might struggle with the game. However … (chess) might help them to work through those challenges.”

One good reason to play chess might be the social benefit. When you think of the exchanges between opponents in a chess game, this seems unlikely. However, when you ask chess enthusiast Mike Stridsberg about his memories of playing the game as a child, he’ll tell you “In addition to the pure enjoyment of the game for its own sake, chess helped me to meet people — kids who were older or younger than I was — kids who were in different social circles. Without chess, I wouldn’t have had the chance to spend time with some very interesting people.”

Participants in the 2022 fall elementary chess championships. Photo by Corinne Cooper.
Stridsberg has been running the Vermont State Chess Championships for 14 years. He encourages all abilities to attend these events, which are scheduled every fall and spring. Stridsberg notes that the fall competitions are more casual, while the winners of the state championships in the spring earn the right to represent Vermont in the national events in the summer.

This year the spring state championships for middle school, grades 6–8, and high school, grades 9–12, will be held at the Capital City Grange Hall on April 15. All elementary school students from kindergarten through grade 5 are eligible to compete in the elementary school chess championships on April 22, also held at the Capital City Grange Hall. 

The Bernie Sanders’ First Annual Youth Chess Day on April 1 will be at the Vermont Technical College in  Randolph. Learn to play chess session at 11 a.m.; Recreational Tournament at 1 p.m. Register at sanders.senate.gov/vt-events/first-annual-youth-chess-day.

Complete rules and registration information can be found at vtchess.info or by contacting Mike Stridsberg, tournaments director at mike@vtchess.info. Advance registration is required to participate.

Editor’s note: This article was updated March 8 to correct dates of the events.