Learning chess — champion style

More and more schools across the U.S. are incorporating chess as a way to increase their students’ academic performance.

World chess champion gets kids excited about the game

More and more schools across the U.S. are incorporating chess as a way to increase their students’ academic performance.

Redmond resident Elena Donaldson is a big part of that movement.

Donaldson is a three-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion, two-time Russian Women’s Champion and World Women Olympic Champion. And if that’s not enough, she was also a 1986 runner-up for the World Championship title.

Now she runs a chess school at the Bellevue Boys and Girls Club.

Donaldson’s passion for chess and her desire to see children succeed academically prompted her to develop a method she calls “Chess Academy.” This method, she said, when applied to 5- and 6-year-olds, develops skills that will benefit them throughout their life.

“Five- and 6-year-olds need it [chess] for education,” Donaldson said.

It is important to get kids involved with chess before grade three if they are to have any long-lasting change in their brain, Donaldson added. After grade three, “You don’t see the same results because their brain is already developed.”

Chess is a way for older kids to have self-confidence, inspiration and a means of personal expression in a social activity — not everyone is good at music or athletics, she said, and every student in school needs to have some activity they’re good at.

Donaldson said there are only three rules to be a talented chess player: “Parental involvement, passion for the game and effort.”

Donaldson believes all students should be involved in a chess program, but emphasized that it is critical between ages of 5 to 7. But she said it can’t be just any chess program.

“It has to be an intensive chess program — it has to be academic,” she said.

“If you put your 5- to 7-year-old in chess for one or two years, they will all be good at math,” she said.

Archana, 11, one of the school participants, said that “chess rocks!” She started playing just a couple of months ago and said she really likes it.

Sasikala Einstein, Archana’s mother, said this was Archana’s second camp with Donaldson; the first was a couple of months ago at Woodinville Montessori, Bothell campus. Einstein said they had heard about Donaldson’s chess program through friends and was impressed by Donaldson’s World Class Champion status.

Randy Wilkens, senior athletic director of the Boys and Girls Club that Donaldson’s reputation as a World Champion draws kids from all over Washington state to participate in her chess camps and classes.

Alice Chang, mother of camp participant Roger, 9, who lives in Vancouver, Wash., said the chess camps at the Boys and Girls Club are a “big attraction because of the teacher.”

Donaldson’s assistant teacher, Seattle Pacific University sophomore Curtis Thillips, said he found the position on SPU’s job board and “thought it would be a great opportunity” to work alongside Donaldson.

“I’ve played chess since elementary school, but only recreationally. They [school] didn’t emphasize chess as much then. It seems like it’s really grown in popularity,” he said.

Chess camps at the main Bellevue Boys and Girls Club are offered during Bellevue School District breaks and cost $220 a week or $75 a day; although, Main said, children are never turned away if they can’t afford to pay.

She also offers private lessons for $80, which take place twice a month at her home.

Tara Fuller is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.