Larry Richmond has played chess since he was young but said he is proud that his own students can beat him at his favorite game. However, he said he was even more proud that chess had become the favorite after-school club of the university academy students and wanted to encourage local schools to start their own clubs and hold competitions.
Richmond started a chess club with a handful of fourth-graders at the University of Texas at Tyler’s University Academy in Palestine when he began teaching math there seven years ago. The first two groups are now juniors and seniors in high school whose skills have grown as much as they have.
“We have a couple of kids who are almost as good as me,” Richmond said. “They hit me the same way I hit them.”
The club has also grown in popularity recently, attracting up to 40 students for 90 minutes every Friday after school. In other words, nearly 20% of the school’s roughly 200 students voluntarily stay after school on Friday afternoons to play a board game that’s over 1,200 years old.
Long considered a mathematical game, chess encourages players to think logically, solve problems, and recognize patterns and spatial relationships. Richmond said that playing chess helps students develop academic and lifelong skills.
“It’s really a great metaphor for life because it involves learning, trying hard and learning from your mistakes,” Richmond said. “There are many studies that suggest that performance in chess is positively correlated with performance not only in math but also in reading.”
First-grader Jesse Green, who enjoys playing chess at home with family members and practicing it with apps on an iPad, described the game as “challenging.”
“You see how the other players are playing and how good they are,” Green said, explaining why he likes the game so much.
Still, the club’s recent explosion in growth is still somewhat of a mystery. One reason could be that students are keen to return to extracurricular activities that were canceled last year due to the pandemic.
Another reason for the club’s current popularity could be the Netflix television series The Queen’s Gambit, which uses chess as a metaphor for the main character’s inner struggles. About half of the chess club members are girls.
Another reason may be the influence of older students. On Friday afternoons, Richmond and some high school students visit the first and second grade classrooms to introduce the game and guide the younger players.
Regardless of the cause, however, Richmond said he believes many other students will be able to enjoy the game as well. Nathan Allen, a former UA math teacher who now teaches at Elkhart Middle School, recently started a chess club there.
“My goal is to branch it out in East Texas, and maybe we can do tournaments against each other,” Richmond said. “It’s just such a great game. I hope we can expand it beyond our school.”