For most Lance Middle School students, lunch means making their way to the cafeteria for the half hour break to eat.
For about 100 of them, however, lunch is a breather for the mind, a brief escape to knock off pawns, ride their knights, “castling” with rooks and employing their almighty queens in a stimulating game of chess.
Oh, they bring their lunch, too, but instead of heading to the cafeteria, they mount tables with the black and white boards set up in the wide hallway just outside the cafeteria.
Between bites of PB&J sandwiches, bagels, chips, and other goodies, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders — about 30-40 each lunch period — sit at the boards plotting their next move.
“It’s just fun,” said Elizabeth Whittier, 13, who immediately captured 12-year-old Ezan Hamdia’s queen with her bishop. “I just don’t like the queen.”
Ezan, who has been playing since he was in fourth grade, appreciates the game because “it takes a lot of skill,” he said.
While she and Ezan focused on their next moves, Elizabeth said she learned how to play chess from an uncle who taught her when she was in second grade. She really got into it about two months ago after fellow schoolmate Benjamin Dominguez started playing in the cafeteria.
In fact, it was Benjamin’s impromptu game one day that has now blossomed into what Lance’s dean of students Amy Holm likes to call a “mini Central Park,” referring to New York City’s famous outdoor chess tables.
For Benjamin, playing nearby, choosing chess was a way for him to engage in a game of strategy during the lunch hour.
“I started this chess (activity), because there was no games with strategy involved,” he said, “so kids can keep their minds exercised.”
Benjamin said he learned from his dad when he was younger. He said playing chess keeps him focused and his mind sharp and wouldn’t mind competing in high-stakes tournaments.
“But, I’d like to go to the library and study more about chess first,” he said.
Holm said she is amazed at how the game at Lance has grown from four players to 100 in the two months the students have been involved. One the most impressive things? Students teaching each other.
“By listening to them talking and teach each other, it’s not something that you’d expect. But they’re all willing to teach other kids if they want to play,” she said. “And it’s all different kids playing.”
Garrett Maklary, 13, is among the students who took an interest in the game and began playing about two months ago.
“I just decided to join because I wanted to learn chess. It’s more of how complicated it is,” he said. “It’s nice to have your brain always trying to learn new tactics and what works and what doesn’t work against certain (situations).”
Mason Feest, 12, who helped Benjamin spark the interest of other students by teaching them the game, likes how it has grown in such a short time. What had been started by seventh-graders quickly drew sixth- and eighth-graders.
“And then, it turned into all this,” said Mason, who saw Benjamin playing one day and asked if he could play next. Benjamin said “sure” but they’d need another board .
Holm said they had one board at the school and then had to find a second board.
“Then we started ordering them,” she said.
As for Mason’s reason for playing?
“To get out of the lunch room where it’s all loud and you can’t hear yourself think,” he said. “It puts me in the right mindset before my (next) class and calms my heart rate down. It’s kind of soothing.”