A child taught Kori Miller to play chess.
At the time, the Fremont woman and her husband, Steve Ericksen, had a tea company and store in Omaha. The child — a 10-year-old boy — and his sister would come into the store. That’s where the boy began teaching Miller how to play on a board set up in her shop.
“I didn’t know how to play at all,” said Miller, an author, facilitator and coach.
But she learned.
Today, Miller — who’s also a substitute teacher and paraeducator — works with the chess club at Bergan.
And last year, she launched clubs at Washington Elementary and Cedar Bluffs Public Schools. The Bergan club had more than 100 participants from kindergarten through sixth grade in 2017, while the Cedar Bluffs club had a core group of about six.
The club at Washington has grown from about 40 students in 2017 to 70 this year.
Miller beams as she enthusiastically talks about the clubs, which she believes help students learn patience, creativity, sportsmanship, problem-solving and how to handle losing.
At the same time, the students form friendships.
One recent Friday afternoon, children gathered around chess-board covered tables in the Washington Elementary School library.
Cristal Campuzano and Isabel Sanchez began playing chess as fourth-graders after students were encouraged to try it last year. They continued to play all year.
This year, they’re fifth-graders at Johnson Crossing Academic Center, but still come to Washington Elementary to help out.
Cristal enjoys the game.
“Usually after school, we are tired of learning and on Fridays when we come to play is when our brains actually turn on and we start playing and teaching the other students how to play,” Cristal said.
At another table, 7-year-old Armando Alvarez was helping Scarlet Gutierrez, 8, learn to play the game.
“I know what all the pieces are called and I know what direction they move,” said Armando, a second-grader. “I have chess at my house. When I was 4, I played against my dad one day and I lost and I was crying.”
But Armando plans to beat his dad at the game someday.
As time passed, several children continued to play, while Miller reflected on how she became involved with chess locally.
Miller and her husband and family moved south of Fremont in 2007.
They would close the Omaha store but still ran the tea business here until about a year ago. They also have Neskcire Systems, LLC, a systems design and development company.
About five years ago, Miller was asked to help with the chess club at Bergan, when the school needed another person to assist.
“It was a perfect fit,” Miller said.
Miller works with Bergan teachers Kate Hurst and Tabbi Sheets along with parent volunteers.
“We’ve been able to develop that club well in the last several years,” said Miller, who wrote a curriculum-guide book for it.
At club time, Miller takes one group of students for a special session on speed chess or strategy — 20 minutes of concentrated activity.
Meanwhile, other students in grades 3-6 play chess against each other in the cafeteria. Students in kindergarten through second grade, who don’t know how to play, will be with another teacher in a different room.
Miller said the club has grown well because it was opened up to students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
“The parents’ response has been fabulous,” she said. “They love it — for one reason — because it gives kids who aren’t into sports something else to do that they love.”
A couple of years ago, Miller was working as a paraeducator in the resource room at Washington Elementary. While there, she learned kids were interested in chess.
So she brought a large demo board, where kids learned to play. Principal Diane Stevens already had talked to local residents Larry Johnson and Will Mitchell about a club being started at the school when Miller asked if she could form one.
Everything came together, Miller said.
During club time, students are divided into sections. Miller works with kindergarten and first-grade students. Her son, Zane, an eighth-grader, works with second- and third-grade students. Her daughter, Zara, works with fourth-graders.
By the time students are fourth-graders, most know how to play. They’ve already learned how to play a team chess game called “Bug House,” which involves two boards.
“It gets crazy, but the kids love Bug House chess, so when they get to a level where they can play that game, they’re really excited,” Miller said.
Kids at Washington school learn about the chess pieces and how they move and then they play. Miller would like to see more volunteers come and teach specific things.
“But we’re not there yet,” she said.
Students at Washington still benefit.
“Some of these kids speak English really well,” Miller said. “Some of them are learning English, but chess is an equalizer. We can sit down and they’ll understand just by moving pieces. I think that’s pretty cool,” she said.
Cora Verbeek, site manager for Washington Elementary’s after-school program, appreciates the chess club.
“I like that the kids love it so much,” Verbeek said. “They enjoy it. They really look forward to it. It gives them something to concentrate on … they have to strategize a little bit.”
The chess club at Cedar Bluffs began with a fair number of students but decreased to a core group of about six. Some kids who didn’t stay last year have returned this year.
Miller cites two boys — one of whom is a first-grader — who play the game with their father and are talented chess players. The boys love the club.
“They’re in hog heaven because they get to play so many other people and get to learn things and go home and try to beat their dad,” she said.
Students learn more than chess when playing the game, however. They learn:
- “It’s a thinking game,” Miller said. “Some people can think very quickly, like the two kids from Cedar. Their brains move really fast and so for those two, my objective is to get them to slow down a little bit and really think things through a little bit more – just because they play so fast. But it’s that balance.”
- When looking at the board, players see where their pieces are in relation to their opponent’s pieces – and the possible outcomes. Players also need to know, for instance, how a pawn moves (diagonally forward and never backward) as opposed to a knight (which moves three spaces in an “L” shape).
- “I don’t have to memorize a master’s chess moves in order to win the game,” Miller said. “I can use my own creativity to figure out how to win. It really opens up your thinking. You think about all different possibilities.”
- Players begin and end games by shaking hands. “You can get upset that you lost, but the way you handle how you lost, that’s kind of a big deal — and so kids learn how to handle losing because they’re going to lose a lot. That’s just part of the process. And you’re going to learn a lot more from losing than from winning.”
And learning how to handle loss can help them in other areas in the future.
- When a player loses, he or she can analyze how their opponent beat them and what they can do differently the next time.
Miller also said the chess club helps students form relationships they wouldn’t have outside of the group.
As 5 p.m. approached, the school began to get quieter. Zane and Zara came over to stand near their mom. Both students said they like helping students learn the game and Zane added this:
“Sometimes, their faces just light up with joy when they understand it and I love seeing that.”