Village Life

Rise and Shine: Student Chess at the Barracuda

Twice a week, the pink picnic tables outside Barracuda Taphouse and Grill are cleared of beer pitchers and college kids to make space for chess boards and elementary school students. 

Cuda Club, as the students proudly call themselves, is Coconut Grove Elementary’s up-and-coming chess team committed to bringing together chess-lovers across the community while fostering the next generation of chess masters. 

“It’s a great thing for our school, for our community, and the parents and volunteers that have made it happen,” parent Ann Eubanks said. 

The club of first to fifth-graders and their parents meet every Tuesday and Thursday an hour before school starts to practice their chess skills, from pawn structures to endgames, in preparation for tournaments. 

6 year-old Dante Ramirez reacts to a move.

“It’s a wonderful thing for all the kids, to see that light bulbs turn on and the sparkle in their eyes, smile on their faces, and the banter in the morning where everything is activated before school starts,” said Ben Glatzer, a parent with two kids in Cuda Club. 

The club began at the start of the 2023-2024 school year after a tumultuous run of chess clubs at Coconut Grove Elementary. Prior to COVID-19 CGE had a chess club called the Chess Knights.

The program ended with the pandemic and was replaced with a classroom chess group funded through Title 1, a federal program that provides additional resources to schools with low-income students. Soon after, CGE lost its Title 1 status and began charging students $75 for an after-school chess club without an expert to coach them.

Unsatisfied, the parents sought out a more accessible and worthwhile program for the school. That’s when they were introduced to Webber Charles, a local chess coach and the director of student achievement at Breakthrough Miami, a local nonprofit organization. 

Charles, originally an art teacher with no background in chess, took up coaching after joining the teaching staff at Edison Park Elementary in 2005. After a rocky first season, Charles threw himself into the game, reading chess books, partnering with other coaches, and seeking the advice of grandmasters, the highest title a chess player can attain.

In 2008 the Edison Park Raider Rooks won the K-6 national championship. In 2014, Webber won his second national championship as a coach with Ransom Everglades School. He’s looking for his third win with Cuda Club. 

9 year-old Abigayil Zenn contemplates her next move.

“Working with students on the chessboard, and watching them grow through failure, and come back and try again, and come back and try again, and use their brain as critical thinkers is the best gift I can give to them,” Charles said. “It energizes me in a way that nothing else does.”

Over the past year, Charles has increased the player’s Elo ratings (chess ratings comparing players to their peers) from 100-200 points and brought home a few trophies. Charles says it’s only the beginning of their growth. As much as the club is about community, it’s also about competitive play, he explained. 

Charles divides the week’s curriculum into tactical Tuesdays, where the students work on puzzles and situational play, and tournament Thursdays, where they challenge high school students from Ransom Everglades. It’s the same method he followed with his previous schools. 

“What young people need is the same across the board,” he said. “I need to create an environment with access to resources and personnel that allows for the students to invest in themselves and grow and perfect their craft.”

He’s used this insight to help bring schools and people together, including the CGE and Ransom Everglades students, referring to chess as an equalizer. 

“Bringing in the older kids from Ransom has been huge for the older kids in our group because they get to see where they can go in the future with it and they get a chance to play against kids that have been playing a long time,” Eubanks said. 

It’s also preparing them socially. Glatzer, a near master chess player, said he has forged profound relationships through chess. 

“When you go through war – and chess is war, it’s battle – with someone, you get to know them pretty well,” he said. 

7 year-old John Jr Violin Caldeira contemplates his next move.

It makes the kids on the team close, despite age gaps, he said, and allows them to hold their own at tournaments, where they are often on their own for hours playing games and meeting many new people.

Charles believes chess does a lot for students that traditional schooling does not, particularly pushing them to become comfortable at a young age with losing. 

“You lose a lot more than you ever win in chess,” he said. “Confidence isn’t built through winning and losing. It’s built through being able to do something better than you did yesterday.”

After the morning competition two of the youngsters head to school.

Chess works at a lot of levels, which is part of why Charles has stayed with it for so long. In addition to the social aspect, research shows that playing chess improves vocabulary, analytical skills, and patience. 

“The mental toughness, the confidence, the passion for things, I think it translates into their schoolwork,” Eubanks said. 

Through it all, the love for the game and club is apparent. 

Kids as young as 7 are dragging their parents out of bed before sunrise to go to Cuda Club and to tournaments on the weekends. At the club, they show off their best strategies to their parents who now find themselves a part of the chess world that many did not know existed until their kids started playing. Other parents familiar with the game are now struggling to keep up with their kids’ level of play. One dad, whose son beat him seven times in a row, has had to start studying to match his level. 

The support and interest of the parents in the club is pivotal to defining its success.

Ben Glatzer gives pointers to his 7 year-old daughter Talia.

“They [the parents] don’t need to stick around and they do so with charisma and they’re earnest and they ask great questions,” Glatzer said. “They got bit by the bug and they want to continue.”

For Glatzer, the experience has linked memories from his childhood to his children. When he was in elementary school, his mom would come in once a week with games like Boggle for all the kids to play. They called her the “game lady.” Now he has found the opportunity to make those same memories for his kids with chess. 

“I’m just happy to be the ‘game dad’ for my children too,” he said. 

For Charles, the club is a way to start the kids’ mornings off right and gives him a way to share his love for chess with even more people. 

“No matter what happens the rest of the day at least I was a part of something positive in the morning to start the day. And that means everything to me.”

See the Cuda Club in action in our Instagram slideshow by Patrick Farrell.

Advertisement

Recent News