Students at Zeta Charter School in Mott Haven learn chess moves from a master. Photo: Andrew Ancheta.

Sports is one of the highlights of elementary school, and no recess is complete without an impromptu ballgame. But on Monday at Zeta Charter School in the South Bronx, a group of high-energy school children came to cheer and clap for a different kind of spectacle–a competitive game of speed chess. 

Dozens of students from the Zeta South Bronx and Zeta Inwood elementary schools came to hear the story of Tyrone Davis, founder of “The Gift of Chess,” a nonprofit that provides free boards to help people learn the game. Like many of the students in attendance, Davis was a Bronx-born chess player who discovered the game at a young age. Now, he says teaching chess can help kids learn the skills to succeed in life. 

The event was followed by a timed match between two teams, led by Davis and Boaz Weinstein, founder of the hedge fund Saba Capital and a Zeta board member. As the teams moved quickly to remove one another’s pieces and take control of the board, the other students jumped and shouted to show their support. 

Zeta students take chess every week, according to the school’s website, and some also participate in the after-school chess team.

“Chess is a microcosm for life,” said Jacob Stein, who is in his first year teaching chess at Zeta. “You have to plan ahead, you have to strategize, you have to play fair. You have to show integrity and lose with humility.”

Many Zeta students have already internalized those lessons, Stein added. “Losing is part of learning and everybody loses,” he said. “I think it teaches our kids maturity at a very young age.” 

Davis, who also works at Saba Capital with Weinstein, says that chess helped him learn some of the analytical skills that he uses on Wall Street.

“Pattern recognition is big,” Davis said. “Being able to sit at a board or table for hours sometimes is very crucial for these kids who will one day be taking the SAT.”

As the match approached endgame, White took the upper hand, but Black managed to eke out a win by running out the clock.

“They were much better than I expected,” said Weinstein, who played on the White team along with two students. “They actually played almost all the moves and they played really well.”

Learning chess is a fun way to learn and be competitive, according to ten-year-old Destiny Osagie, who helped Black win the game along with Davis and another student. 

“At first I was feeling okay and I didn’t care if I won or lose,”  said Destiny, who started learning last year. “But during the end game, I got really nervous on how fast the moves were going.” 

Destiny hopes he’ll be able to compete in a tournament next year. 

Both teams showed a high level of skill, added Davis, who started learning chess when he was a few years older than the students.

“Destiny was on my team and he was carrying me the whole way,” Davis said. “And so I didn’t need to do much.”

After today’s game, each student received a parting gift–a free board from the Gift of Chess, the nonprofit that Davis founded to introduce the game to people with no boards of their own. The nonprofit has provided free chess sets to immigrants and people in prison. Davis has also traveled to Nigeria to share the game with residents of Lagos. 

Playing chess can help people connect with others, even without a common language, Davis explained during his speech. 

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