Monday, March 28, 2011

Chess in the Library Big Success in Toronto!

Congrats to WIM Yuanling Yuan's initiative - Chess in the Library.  The program that started out of an idea she had a few years ago at 15 has taken off - and there's no end in sight...
From Inside Toronto
Mar 27, 2011 - 1:30 PM
Checkmate: Chess is much more than just board game
Chess in the Library sees success in Toronto's branches

If your notion of chess involves a scene with two elderly gentlemen slowly exchanging strange-looking objects on a checkered board under a blanket of deafening silence, then it's time you adopt a more modern understanding.

Enter Brookbanks Public Library in North York, the birthplace of Chess in the Library - a weekly program created by Canada's youngest female International Master, Yuanling Yuan, 17. The library is where young chess players gather to play and learn.

Already two years in, Yuan's idea has been a tremendous success. Chess in the Library now spans across 12 Toronto libraries, and has more than 40 volunteers. The program also operates in three libraries in Ottawa, and one library in Victoria, BC and Calgary, Alta.

One rainy Saturday morning the hysterical howls of children emanate from an undisclosed quarter fill the library.

"Stop throwing the pieces," echoes down a corridor.

Though many players are at the age where they can count their age on one hand - in some cases two - and their knowledge of the game is basic at best, in this program lurks an undeniable sense of enrichment.

Vivek Chachcha, 16, who volunteers at Brookbanks, is particularly grateful for having a chance to assist in the program's weekly operations. A self-described novice, Vivek recently started playing chess last summer because it was the only game on his computer and has been playing ever since.

A friend he made at the club has seen great improvements in his skill, he said.

"I remember when Vlad Bardalez came in, who was an average chess player, and over several months of playing and growing, he's beating me now," said Vivek. "When you see something like that you feel good."

Bardalez, 14, quickly became a familiar face around Brookbanks. His efforts have earned him a certain sense of notoriety from his peers, something given only to those who have demonstrated their dedication in the wake of adversity.

"I played in the past and then quit. I wasn't very good," Bardalez said. "But my weekends were open so I came in and tried it again, and kept coming back. Earlier this morning I beat someone who I've never beaten before; it's nice to get that checkmate."

The 'checkmate' is simply the tip of the iceberg.

In essence, Chess in the Library is designed to boost social and intellectual development. Chess demands the expansion of math and literacy skills and the emotional capacity to learn how to win and lose. But more importantly, these skills help prepare participants for the challenges which lie ahead as they transition through elementary school to middle school, to high school and beyond - something not offered by today's digital mediums.

Although video games do offer entertainment, there's limited emphasis on engaging one's intellectual faculties.

"Instead of just hitting buttons, you have to decide how you want to play and consider the consequences of your actions," said Kevin Wu, 15, executive director of the program. "Chess is a parallel to life - cause and effect."

Wu started playing when he was seven years old after his parents bought him a book on chess. Since then, he's been completely absorbed by the game. Following in Yuan's shoes, he's now a Candidate Master.

"Concentration is important, especially when you're in a half-hour game - multitasking is the new thing, but in chess you're focused on one thing and one thing only," added Vivek.

Chess is as challenging as it is revealing. Each player has their own style based on their unique personality. As they become more accustomed to the conventions of the game, their style of playing becomes more complex.

"When you play someone you have to adapt to their style," said Bardalez.

He notes that younger, more inexperienced players tend to be reckless and aggressive. It's just in their nature. But the longer they play and more mature they become, they tend to abandon those tendencies and think things through.

Feedback from parents has been exceptionally positive.

"They're very excited because their kids are around that age where they tend to stop coming to the library and reading books; their curiosity is changing directions," said Denise Drabkin, branch head of Brookbanks District Branch library. "This shows them the library is a relevant place for them."

Amber Daugherty, 21, who moved here from Listowel, Ontario, volunteers at Humberwood Library in Etobicoke, where they recently held a chess tournament over the March Break. She sees this program as an opportunity to connect with other members of the community.

"I live close to Humberwood, so I decided to go check it out - I love chess," says Daugherty. "I immediately adored all the kids who attended, and loved that it allowed me to get to know some people I wouldn't have otherwise gotten to know in the area."

Nonetheless, the program faces challenges relating to sustainability. The operation has grown considerably, including a board of elected executives, a website, and numerous chess-related blogs, and a budget, which Yuan notes, can use some donations.

"My long-term goal was to spread this program across Canada with a program in every province," says Yuan. "So far it's working, but we need people to help run it."

Gloria Jacobs, branch head of Bloor/Gladstone District Branch library, whose library recently included the Chess in the Library into its public programming, acknowledges the need for more assistance.

"We're not as developed as Brookbanks or other branches," says Jacobs. "We're going to need more time to attract and grow our audience, but as with anything, it takes time and effort."

The most dedicated players will eventually become volunteers to help mentor the next wave of players.

"We need their help to sustain the program and help it grow," says Drabkin. "They build their public speaking skills and their leadership skills. In the end, everybody wins."

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