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Educational gambit: Academy brings chess to Portland schools, seeks financial aid

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Educational gambit: Academy brings chess to Portland schools, seeks financial aid

PORTLAND — Chess teacher Ben Monaghan had his work cut out for him.

On a recent afternoon, Monaghan set up six chess boards at Fred P. Hall Elementary School and endeavored to teach the royal game to a dozen energetic children.

At first, it was pandemonium, but over the course of an hour, the students settled down and got serious. Eventually, the room was replete with tiny, furrowed brows and occasional words of advice.

"They get better quickly, which is amazing," Monaghan said. "All you need is a catalyst. If you have one or two kids who can play chess, they'll start teaching one another. It just starts spreading out."

Monaghan is hoping to spread chess even farther. This month, he mounted a Kickstarter campaign to raise $6,000 for the Maine Chess Academy.

For the past three years, Monaghan has served as one of four volunteers within the academy, which holds regular training sessions in East End Community School and Howard C. Reiche Community School. The group also brings chess to a different elementary school each Wednesday afternoon as part of Portland Recreation's after-school program.

The program's work at East End has been an unabashed success. Last spring, a chess team from the failing school won a tournament against Falmouth Elementary School and Ocean Avenue School.

"We just destroyed everybody. It wasn't even close," Monaghan said. "The kids were just so thrilled."

After the victory, the volunteers began to talk of expansion. They want to reach more children, he said.

"We said, 'If we're going to do this, let's do it right. Let's incorporate. Let's become a 501 (c) 3. Let's come up with a plan.'"

The expansion, however, will cost money. Monaghan estimates it could cost as much as $1,200 to file as a nonprofit. Eventually, the goal is to create full-time, paid staff positions at the academy.

Monaghan, who owns a Portland-based marketing business, would eventually like to be a full-time employee of the academy, with a small salary, he said.

Monaghan learned chess when he was 8 years old, and has competed in the United States and Germany. He said the game improves minds.

"Chess is one of the most studied games," he said. "It gets kids excited about learning and using their brains. It improves focus, concentration. It even improves reading comprehension."

So far, however, the Kickstarter campaign has had very little support. By Monday morning, it had raised a total of $90, a far cry from the $6,000 goal. The deadline to contribute is 9:59 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 28.

Nonetheless, Monaghan isn't discouraged. A video that he created to accompany the Kickstarter campaign has attracted attention from city officials, including Mayor Michael Brennan and Councilor Ed Suslovic, who are planning to meet with academy volunteers to learn more, he said.

Last week at Fred P. Hall Elementary School, brothers Isaac and Calvin Small were busy playing chess among their peers. The brothers – who are in fifth and third grade, respectively – are experienced players and helped Monaghan teach the other students. Their father, Eli Small, said the boys learned at home.

"You're almost never too young to learn," said Small, a social studies teacher at Deering High School. "It's just a great game for your mind."

Monaghan agreed the game is appropriate for all ages.

"It's incredibly popular wherever we go," he said. "Never in a million years would I have thought these kids would enjoy chess as much as they do. Not just the studious kids, either. It's everybody."

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.