Des Moines School Chess Club teaches life skills without all the noise

“When it’s quiet, it brings me peace,” said Cesia Chirinos, 12, from Des Moines.

The Moore Elementary third-grader sat quietly, pink fingernails pressed to her cheek, concentrating on which piece to move next on the chess mat in front of her.

She heaved a deep sigh, made a movement, then let herself fall back against the chair and waited for her opponent’s counter.

Opposite her was volunteer Michael Adams, also an avid chess player. Adams comes to school three days a week to help with the chess club.

“Some kids choose to come in during recess, so you know they mean it,” Adams said with a smile. “I love seeing their passion for the game.”

Sitting at the same table, Danford Azor slowly slipped a chess piece into another square. “I can’t wait to play,” said the 11-year-old, adding that he likes the concentration and silence of chess compared to the playing field.

Azor has no board or opponent at home, so his only outlet for the game is at the school club.

Moore Elementary, on the northwest side of town, is an International Baccalaureate, or IB, school that seeks to cultivate an international outlook and encourage learning beyond traditional subjects. About two-thirds of Moore students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, often cited as a measure of poverty.

This school year, just like in schools in Iowa and across the country, many students struggled to keep up with the pace of learning as they spent long stretches in the fall taking classes remotely. or self-quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the chess club, started by volunteer Abe Goldstien three years ago, provides an oasis away from the stresses of class or home. It meets daily for third, fourth and fifth graders interested in playing.

After 43 years in the advertising world, Goldstien began volunteering in school upon retirement.

“I always wanted to be an elementary school teacher, but I never pursued it,” Goldstien said.

During a volunteer day at school shortly after he started, he noticed a student in the hallway who seemed unmotivated.

“I didn’t know what his story was,” Goldstien said, but he wanted to help.

Goldstien discovered that the student was playing chess, and the two began playing together in the hallway. “Other kids would come and say, ‘Oh, what is this? So it developed like that,” he said.

The club “really helps build life skills,” said Laura Manroe, an education coach and IB coordinator, who worked with Goldstien to start the club and has seen the game’s impact on students as his demand increased.

“It’s another way for them to feel like they belong,” Manroe said.

Back in the classroom, spread across five tables, about 12 students looked at their mats, finally made a move, then slapped a timer.

“To me, it just gives them a chance to not play a video game and think about their moves,” Goldstien said.

He hopes the lessons in focus and critical thinking students learn at the chess club will translate into their regular classwork.

His subtle reminder, should he see chess players doing something they shouldn’t: “Is that really a good move?”

“So that they hopefully make the connection with anticipation when playing chess,” Goldstien said.

Outside, children were screaming as they played games on a field day. In the chess room, Chirinos broke the silence.

She jumped to her feet, grinned from ear to ear, and with a little dance party, celebrated her victory over Adams.

12-year-old Cesia Chirinos of Des Moines, left, dances after winning a match at Moore Elementary School Chess Club Wednesday, May 26, 2021 in Des Moines.

Brian Powers, a photographer and videographer for the Register, is a cycling enthusiast who spends most of his non-professional waking moments on his bike or trying to keep up with his wife and two children. Contact him at [email protected] or @bpowersphoto.

Volunteers wanted

Most years, between 1,000 and 1,500 people volunteer at Des Moines public schools to help students learn and grow.

Popular opportunities include tutoring, coaching, and accompanying outings and field events.

Because access to school buildings has been restricted this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district needs to replenish its volunteer pool as fall approaches, said Phil Roeder, director of communications and district public affairs.

Anyone interested in volunteering can go to to learn more about the guidelines and fill out an application form.

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