members of menlo's chess club at a competition

Menlo’s Chess Club Continues to Excel and Soar in Its Tenth Year

The Menlo Park Academy Chess Club has been a pivotal part of the community since its inception in the 2012-2013 school year. Currently, the club is in its biggest year yet, with record student participation and success at local and regional tournaments. Most notably, on March 13th, 24 students from Menlo competed in the Greater Cleveland Scholastic Chess League (GCSCL) and brought home a shelf full of trophies. This tournament was the largest scholastic chess tournament of the last two years and had over 200 students competing from dozens of schools throughout the Cleveland area. Despite this intense competition, all 24 students fought valiantly and led Menlo to win 1st place in the K-2 Primary Reserve section and 1st place in the Elementary Reserve section!

close up of trophies won by menlo's chess team

The Chess Club invites everyone to participate in carefully-curated classes with expertly chosen instructors to learn how to play the game loved by many throughout history. Menlo has teamed with Progress with Chess to provide supervised open gameplay to inspire students to learn the game. The organization provides students with age- and level-appropriate lessons every class, plus ongoing opportunities to evaluate their skills and excel. Giving students these checkpoints allow them to track their progress and supports a personal growth mindset.

Stacia Pugh, a Progress with Chess administrator and avid chess player, thanks Menlo and the program for showing her it is possible to follow her dreams. Claiming that there is “no program like this one,” Pugh raves about how the MPA Chess Club showed her what is possible in life and inspired her to pursue her passions as a chess instructor. Her favorite part about Chess Club is the fantastic students that show up every week, eager to learn and excited to grow.

Since any student can join Chess Club no matter their experience, families flock to registration each fall. This past fall, over 150 students participated, separated by age and skill level. This program’s structure allows students to thrive individually, learn from other players, and receive personalized advice from instructors and administrators.

Within the Chess Club, there are five levels students can join and/or rise through the ranks. The first level is for beginners—students who know very little (or nothing) about chess. They learn the basics of the pieces, how they can move, and the rules. Next, the novice level takes those beginner skills and applies introductory tactical moves, including castling and how to stalemate. The next tier, the intermediate level, dives much deeper into the tactics and strategies of the game to become one with the pieces.

three chess team students with their trophies

After that, the advanced level teaches more sophisticated techniques and instructs students how to play and win in tournaments, encouraging them to become confident with their gameplay. The final group is called Advanced Plus, and Menlo Park Academy is the only school where Progress with Chess offers this high level of instruction. Advanced Plus is for those who may or may not have already won trophies but have competed and done well in tournaments. This level includes analyzing deeper tactics and observing world-renowned chess matches to help students strengthen their game.

To progress through these levels, instructors observe students and evaluate the next step in students’ chess careers. Students who start at the beginner level can take as few as one or two classes before they are ready to graduate to the novice level. Once at that level, students gain a better grasp of the fundamental structures of the game and can accelerate to the intermediate tier quickly if they demonstrate a solid fundamental understanding of the game and basic strategies.

While not always recommended at the novice level, students have the chance to play in their first tournament to explore the environment and intensity of the game. From that point on, students can win trophies, earn UFCF rating points, and participate in tournaments based on their age and skill level. Whether or not a student is a member of the Chess Club, they are welcome to represent their school in tournaments and competitions.

The most vital ingredient to the Chess Club other than the students is parent volunteers! According to Stacia Pugh, Chess Club simply “would not happen without [the parents’] help.” Each class contains a maximum of 20 students. Parent volunteers help with a plethora of jobs, including providing additional supervision, gamesmanship, and fair play so that instructors can focus on making sure each student gets the most out of each class. Other tasks include serving snacks, ensuring students are where they need to be, taking attendance, setting up classrooms before lessons, and cleaning up following each session.

Krista Friedlander is the parent organizer of these amazing parent volunteers and the liaison between MPA and Progress with Chess. Friedlander accepted this position during the 2019-2020 school year after being a parent volunteer for years prior when her son was in kindergarten. When the Chess Club was required to go remote in 2020, participants relied on Krista to prepare Zoom meetings and correspond with instructors so the club could continue to thrive.

Friedlander praises the parents and students alike for staying consistent during the chaos of quickly going remote and subsequently returning to in-class sessions. She notes that she is thrilled to be a part of something that has come together so nicely and includes such a large part (20%+) of the student body.

Numerous parent volunteers have witnessed students strive for success in these lessons, but the instructors have been even more surprised at the overwhelming response. Stacia Pugh was so excited when her advanced K-3 class jumped at the opportunity to correct her during a lesson. The young kids who were so excited to learn something new could have a conversation about chess at an advanced level with a person of high skill and notoriety in the chess world. Pugh was genuinely ecstatic because moments like that speak to the effectiveness of the program and the impact it will have on each student’s life even after they graduate.

As a show of thanks to the Menlo community and the parents that make Chess Club possible, Progress with Chess will throw a free school tournament at the end of the year! On Thursday, May 19th, the Menlo 2022 Chess Championship will commence with opportunities for everyone to participate and memories that will last a lifetime!