From The Arizona Republic
by Connie Midey - Aug. 24, 2010 12:00 AM
Diagnosed with a life-changing disease, Alyssa Schreiner was spending the first winter break of her college years in a hospital instead of celebrating the holidays at her Tempe home.
She needed a distraction, and pediatrician Norm Saba provided one.
Though the 19-year-old had outgrown her pediatrician, Saba, a family friend, looked in on her at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa each day during the five-week period when she was hospitalized, released and hospitalized again.
"He would come into my room to visit me before he went to check on his patients (in the hospital's pediatrics department)," says Schreiner, now 20 and a University of Arizona transfer student. "One day he brought in a chessboard and gave me his phone number and said, 'We're going to play chess.' "
From her hospital bed, she sent her moves to Saba via text message, and he responded with his in between seeing patients at his Mesa office.
Sometimes, the best medicine in Saba's bag is a simple chess set. It's a remedy he has seen succeed time after time, and Shreiner, too, felt the healing effect with every texted move.
"It was a really hard time for me," she says. "I was just diagnosed with Crohn's (a chronic gastrointestinal disease) and had to go into surgery, and I couldn't go back to my college in Colorado. But playing chess with Norm kept me active and kept my spirits up. He always put a smile on my face."
Strong body, strong mind
The doctor, 56, encourages kids he treats at his office to take up the game. And he plays it bedside with patients at what is now Cardon Children's Medical Center, a separate facility on the Banner Desert campus.
On rounds at the hospital, Saba carries a magnetic chess set in his pocket. Unfolded, the board is 3 by 6 inches. When patients feel up to a game, he sets everything out on a table in their room, an invitation to set aside health worries for a while. A few moves usually are enough for his pajama-clad opponents, and then it's on to check on another patient.
Recently, Saba pulled a set from his pocket, only to have the hospitalized boy and his mother start a game on the spot. The doctor left the board with them.
"The hospital is all about being healthy," Saba says, "and that means having a strong body and a strong mind. Chess is another way to help children be healthy."
It keeps their minds active and their stress at bay while they're confined to bed, "and they can play for their rest of their life," he says.
Fun may be foremost, but chess can be good for players in other ways. Its positive impact on brain fitness has been documented in numerous studies, and anecdotal evidence suggests it helps the rest of the body, too. With the social interaction inherent in matching wits with others, emotional health likely is another beneficiary.
The American Academy of Pediatrics' "School Health Handbook" includes a section on the benefits of chess, inspired by a resolution Saba wrote in 1999 when he was president of the academy's Arizona chapter.
And chess master Leroy Dubeck, a physics professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, remembers research by one of his graduate students decades ago. It showed that competing in a chess tournament delivers a surprising workout.
"We did find," Dubeck says by e-mail, "that players hooked up to physiographs had their breathing rate, heart rate, blood pressure, etc., increase (for some) as much as typically happens to a football player on the field."
Saba believes so strongly in the power of the game that he and 25-year-old son Daniel - the oldest of his three kids - set up a 10- by 10-foot chessboard in the Cardon lobby. Serving as a healthy distraction for the parents and siblings of hospitalized children, it inspires even the littlest of visitors to lug chess pieces up to 2 feet tall from space to space, placing rooks and knights and queens willy-nilly.
Kids visiting Saba's office for routine treatment often leave with a chess set of their own. The pediatrician buys the sets in bulk and has given away hundreds annually for almost five years. In the room where he updates his notes, he plucks copies of Yury Shulman's "Chess! Lessons From a Grandmaster" from a crowded bookshelf and gives them to novice players.
On a recent day, it's Matthew Easter's turn.
The Mesa 8-year-old, there with parents Kathy and Dale, is undergoing his annual exam when Saba spots a potential chess player in the boy's quiet attention during questioning.
Matthew tells Saba that computer class is his favorite. He doesn't know how to play chess, but he'd like to learn.
That's what the doctor likes to hear. He surprises Matthew with a chess set and copy of Shulman's book that are the boy's to keep.
"Chess is exceptional for kids' learning skills and memory," Saba tells Kathy and Dale. "It helps them concentrate and form a plan and implement it. If they make a wrong move, they suffer the consequences. But they learn from their mistakes and get to start all over."
At home that evening, Kathy peeks into the kitchen and spies Matthew at the table with the chessboard before him, pieces all in place, and the instruction book open to Page 5. He's writing notes to himself in a tablet.
"He was very intent on what he was doing," she says later. "His brother (Robert) was busy, and Matthew must have figured, 'I'm not going to wait for anybody.' "
He has tackled the game, methodically and regularly, ever since.
Captured his queen
Saba understands that kind of intensity. His passion for chess took root when he began playing competitively in his senior year at Buckeye High School and flourishes today.
Studies at University of Arizona and then Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine left limited time for play. These were the days long before the Internet made it possible for chess fans to challenge anyone in the world to a game, at any hour of the day.
But Saba stuck with the game, and it has brought him decades of rewards. It even gave him an unconventional gambit when he met the woman who would become his wife.
Pam was a nurse in the newborn intensive-care unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he was doing his pediatric internship.
"Somehow our discussion got onto whether or not she knew how to play chess," Saba says.
She didn't. So in what is unlikely to make any list of most romantic gestures, he bought her a copy of the book "Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess."
Days later, one of Saba's medical-school classmates saw Pam reading the book at lunch.
"That evening," Saba says, "he calls me in a fit of excitement that he just met this awesome blonde who was reading a chess book and says he needs to set me up."
Pam's interest in chess wasn't lasting, but she and Norm have been married for 27 years. They regularly host events in their home for local and visiting chess players and help organize tournaments with Cardon as one of the beneficiaries. Norm also is a sponsor of the annual Summer Chess Academy in Tempe, a program for kids.
Although a strong player in his own right, Saba is most pleased by his patients' and other kids' accomplishments when they pursue chess. Mastering the game, fulfilling as that can be, is not the point.
Children who learn the lessons chess has to teach "have a huge advantage when they tackle the other hurdles life will bring," Saba says.