Sparta Chess Teams kick off a new season

| 15 Feb 2012 | 09:22

    Players in grades K through 12 learn concentration, confidence, and critical thinking skills SPARTA — They have no cheerleaders, no uniforms, no fanfare, or cheering crowds, but Sparta’s chess teams may be some of the town’s most winning competitors. In their ten years of competitive play, Sparta’s chess teams have won 12 New Jersey grade-level state championships. The Sparta Middle School team won the New Jersey state championship in 2009 and 2010. Five teams have placed in the top ten in national tournaments and last spring at the national championships in Nashville, the high school team placed third in the nation for their division. Ten years ago, Sparta’s first chess club was founded at Mohawk Avenue School by resident Tom Murray, who served as coach and leader. The club then expanded to the middle school and the high school, and eventually into the elementary schools with even kindergartners getting into the game. In 2007 the high school chess team was recognized by the Board of Education as an official co-curricular activity, making participants eligible for a varsity letter after attaining certain bench marks as a member of the team. This year at least 100 Sparta students spanning grades K through 12 will participate in their school chess teams and will compete with other students all over the state and around the nation, with Murray still leading and coaching all the groups. However, in spite of its official status as a varsity team, the high school chess program receives no funding from the school district and exists solely due to the volunteer efforts of Murray and the parents of the players. Murray said, “We have the greatest parents in the world. They do so much for this program, such as planning and funding our trips to tournaments and planning extra activities for the kids while we’re out of town.” Murray also said he greatly appreciates the support of Superintendent Dr. Thomas Morton, who he said has given his blessings and encouragement for the chess teams’ efforts from the beginning. But the most rewarding part of his involvement in coaching the chess teams, Murray said, is watching the children grow and learn. “They’re all such fantastic children. It’s such a thrill to see their thinking skills blossom.” Murray gladly volunteers hundreds of hours with no pay to help the kids because he so profoundly believes in the benefits of chess for children. “When you see even the littlest ones finally processing chess moves and the light bulb goes on for them, it’s amazing.” Research has shown that playing chess can hone many important skills for children, such as higher order thinking and processing skills and it can also improve math skills. Involvement on the team can increase self esteem and boost confidence. Barbara Kasabri has four children on the chess teams this year (a tenth grader, an eighth grader, a fifth grader, and a third grader), and said she is increasingly impressed by the amount of time her children can sit and focus on playing chess. She said, “I’m amazed my kids can play for so many hours. Last year my fourth grader played two back to back three-hour games at a tournament.” Murray said Sparta’s chess teams are some of the best in the state and compete well against top private schools that have chess as part of their curriculum and chess masters on staff. The high school team plays an active inter-scholastic season and will compete this year against Mountain Lakes, Bloomfield, West Orange, Newark Academy, Del Barton Academy, and East Stroudsburg. The Sparta chess teams have clubs that meet at each school and their 2011-2012 season began this week. The high school team will attend its first tournament this Saturday in the Poconos. Teams will also be attending tournaments in Minneapolis and in San Diego this year. Club meeting days and times are: Sparta Middle School - Tuesday afternoons, Helen Morgan School - Wednesday mornings, Sparta High School - Wednesday afternoon, and Alpine School - Friday afternoons. Murray said the students have also played against teams from Grand Junction, Colorado as well as Great Falls, Montana via computer. The players also use the computer to practice at home and Murray can access their games and send them feedback on their moves via email. Oct. 8 is “National Chess Day” and Sparta’s chess teams will celebrate on the Boardwalk playing chess with a giant chess set. At 10 am, the high school and middle school teams will compete against each other. At 12:00 noon the Helen Morgan and Alpine schools will compete against each other. Murray, whose real job is a financial planner, said his work with Sparta’s chess clubs is “a total labor of love.” He said kids of all ages can be successful because they can learn at their own pace and play at their own level. He said, “We’re always asking ourselves what we can do to get better. These kids are such a joy.”