At Endhaven Elementary, students are learning chess and a whole lot more.
Endhaven had about 130 members in its chess club in the 2009-10 school year, but Debbie Reicht, a parent who has coordinated the extra-curricular club for seven years, knew the young players were outpacing her abilities to teach them the game.
"It got so large and I didn't have the expertise," said Reicht, a mother of three sons, one of whom - Robbie, 10 - plays on the Endhaven team.
Despite Reicht's limited experience with chess, the kids did well. They participated in several tournaments that seemed to further develop their skills. They were becoming experts, said Reicht, and she sought help to give them the added instruction she couldn't provide.
Reicht had seen Mike Klein at local chess tournaments and sought his help to manage the large club.
Klein, a FIDE Master (Federation Internationale des Echecs, known as FIDE from its French acronym), grew up in Charlotte and has been a fixture in local chess for years. He's played since he was 4 and has competed at the national and local level.
In 1993, as an eighth-grader, Klein began competing in the North Carolina Scholastic Chess Championship at the high school level. He won five years in a row, making him the high school state champion.
Today, Klein, 31, continues to compete in tournaments and teaches chess at local schools. He also conducts summer chess camps in Charlotte and Chapel Hill.
The chess club at Endhaven is smaller this year - about 60 members - but it now is a competitive club rather than the social entity it had been before. Klein said he believes it is one of the largest competitive chess clubs in Charlotte.
For a fee of about $5 per week, the members - from kindergarten through fifth grade - gather before school weekly to receive instruction from Klein and his assistants.
On a Wednesday in late January, Klein and his students met in the media center at Endhaven. The kids watched as Klein illustrated a game between two prestigious players.
In the lesson, Klein used sports analogies and phrases like "happy squares" to capture the children's attention.
"You have to learn what stories appeal to them," said Klein, who used North Carolina basketball great Michael Jordan as a reference for a while until realizing his students didn't know who Jordan was.
Klein said he relies on the Socratic method to teach, "using leading questions to guide them to the answers."
"We try to be a very inclusive club. We don't just focus on the students that know the answers, but (also focus on) the kids that need to learn the information," said Klein. "I want them to be able to figure out the answers for themselves and also not be discouraged by attempting to learn new things."
For those new to chess, the kids learn the pieces until they can play with them all. Then they transition to learning the patterns of the game, said Klein.
Reicht said she wishes more girls played.
"A lot of girls don't get involved with chess," said Reicht. "The ratio seems to be about 10 to 1 (boys to girls), if not more," a statistic that seems consistent in chess circles.
Educators and chess organizations tout the benefits of playing chess, citing improvements in creative and critical thinking.
"For the cost of an $8 chessboard, you teach them how to reason spatially, you can teach them how to choose between two courses of action and which one has the highest probability of success," said Klein.
Klein said he also believes chess teaches social skills.
"You teach them how to win and lose as an individual. I think so many activities kids are involved in today are team sports, and they don't learn to take responsibility for their actions when they lose."
Chess teaches them "to win gracefully without boasting," said Klein.
The parents, according to Klein, appreciate the patience chess teaches their children, and he credits tournaments for developing this skill.
"They play games at tournaments that are two hours long," said Klein.
The kids may benefit intellectually, but they also seem to enjoy the game's challenge. Reicht's son Robbie, a fourth-grader who placed 14th in the recent Southern Scholastic tournament, said the best part of chess is "taking pieces and seeing the cool moves."
Eelya Sefat, 9, the fourth-grade winner in the CMSCA Grade Championship, said she enjoys the competitive nature. "My favorite thing about chess is it really makes you think about it. ... It really gets confusing. It can be tricky. You can lose a piece and then suddenly lose the game," said Eelya.
Some of the students will travel to Raleigh on Feb. 18 to play in the state championship, where Klein suspects they will do well.
"We're going to have a strong team," said Klein.