Larry Richmond has been playing chess from a young age, but said he is proud that his own students can beat him at his favorite game. However, he said he is even more proud that chess has become the favorite after-school club of University Academy students and he wants to encourage local schools to start their own clubs and hold competitions.
Richmond started a chess club with a handful of fourth-graders at the University of Texas at Tyler’s University Academy in Palestine when he started teaching math there seven years ago. The first two groups are now juniors and seniors in high school whose skills have grown as much as they have.
“We have some kids who are almost as good as I am,” Richmond said. “They beat me as much as I beat them.”
The club has also become extremely popular of late, attracting 40 students every Friday after school for 90 minutes. In other words, nearly 20% of the school’s 200 or so students voluntarily stay after school on Friday afternoons to play a board game that is more than 1,200 years old.
Long considered a mathematical game, chess encourages players to think logically, solve problems, and recognize patterns and spatial relationships. Richmond said chess helps students develop academic and lifelong skills.
“It’s a really great metaphor for life because it’s about studying, putting in some effort, and learning from your mistakes,” Richmond said. “There are many studies indicating that performance in chess is positively correlated with performance in not only math, but also reading.”
Freshman Jesse Green, who enjoys playing chess at home with family members and practicing it with apps on an iPad, described the game as “challenging.”
“You can see how the other players are playing and see how good they are,” said Green, explaining why he likes playing the game.
Still, the club’s recent explosion in growth is somewhat puzzling. One reason may be that students are eager to get back to after-school activities that were canceled last year due to the pandemic.
Another reason for the club’s current popularity may be the Netflix television series The Queen’s Gambit, in which chess is used as a metaphor for the protagonist’s internal struggles. About half of the chess club members are girls.
Another reason may be the influence of older students. On Friday afternoons, Richmond and a few high school students visit the first and second grade classrooms to introduce the game and mentor the younger players.
Regardless of the cause, Richmond said he thinks many other students might enjoy the game as well. Nathan Allen, a former math teacher at UA who now teaches at Elkhart Middle School, recently started a chess club there.
“My goal is to expand it into East Texas, and maybe we can hold tournaments against each other,” Richmond said. “It’s just such a great game. I hope we can grow it outside of our school.”