During a sunny lunchtime at R. Roger Rowe School, more than 16 students sat across chess boards contemplating their next move between bites of sandwiches and applesauce. Chess Master Alex London nimbly navigated between games, playing multiple students at one time, explaining his strategy and answering questions.
"I didn't think I would enjoy teaching children, but it turns out I really enjoy it," said London, who has coached chess at the school for 11 years. "I want to explain chess and relate it to the real world."
If fact, London encourages players as young as kindergartners to participate in the club, which meets twice a week at lunch.
"It's like learning a language," London said. "The younger you start the better."
London breaks down the rules of the game so students of all ages can understand, for example: "The queen is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the chess board."
Students can play each other or London, individually or in teams. Students who don't like to lose will shy away from playing him, London said, while others relish the challenge.
"He's a really good tutor," seventh-grader Patrick Roach said. "He always finds a way out of crazy situations, and teaches me what you do in a bad situation."
Playing the ancient war game has been shown to help children improve their critical thinking skills and academic performance, London said, because chess requires planning ahead, paying attention and patience.
Students seem to enjoy the mental challenge.
"It's very strategic," Roach said. "There is no real advantage over your opponent except for the mind."
Chess also is packed with life lessons, such as good sportsmanship, which London strives to teach his pupils. When students lose, he shows them how to politely resign their king and offer a congratulatory handshake to their opponent.
"Five minutes after the game is over, no one remembers who won," London said. "If you were a gentleman, that's what they will remember all their life."
London, 75, is a self-taught U.S. Chess Federation Life Chess Master. He began playing as a boy growing up in Minnesota, entering his first tournament at 12-years-old.
One of London's greatest claims to fame is defeating 14-year-old Bobby Fischer, who had just won the 1957 U.S. Open Chess Tournament.
"I didn't know he was a big player, which was a huge help to me," London said, who was 24 at the time.
London still remembers what the board looked like when he made "the best combination of my career" to win checkmate.
Unlike Fischer, London believes there is much more to life than chess, emphasizing the importance of career and family over the game. However, he is still concerned about the future of the game he is so passionate about.
The rules of chess have not been changed since 1490, and masters can play the first 20 optimal moves from memory, London said.
"It's played out," he said.
Recognizing chess needs to evolve, many players tried to develop adaptations but none were widely adopted.