St. Ethelreda’s chess team offers lessons in strategy, patience

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, May 8, 2019

St. Ethelreda’s chess team offers lessons in strategy, patience

Fifty kindergartners through eighth-graders at St. Ethelreda School participate in the school’s chess team. Their work has garnered tables full of trophies, proudly displayed by the school’s front office. It has also helped members of the team find skills and talents they did not know they had.
St. Ethelreda School students practice chess on April 12, 2019. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Eric Luster, a teacher and chess coach, guides the students on April 12, 2019/ (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The chess team’s many trophies are on display at the school. (Photo courtesy of Susan Thomas)
(Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Samantha Chalmers, a sixth grade student, contemplates her moves. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Seventh-grader Shakira Luster, a standout, assists younger players before preparing to leave for a national competition at McCormick Place on April 12. She was recently ranked in the top 100 for 12-year-old girls in the United States, and to our knowledge, she is the only African American female student for her age in this ranking. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
(Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

When Eric Luster starts speaking, all eyes go to the front of the room.

“At the beginning, what’s the goal?” he asks, pointing to a diagram of a chess board projected onto a screen.

“Control the center,” a student says.


“Develop your pieces,” another says.

“Right,” Luster says, leading them through the opening of a game.

Luster has been coaching chess at St. Ethelreda School, 8734 S. Paulina Ave., for four years. He also teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science and math at the school. As a professional chess player himself, he has plenty of skills to pass on, and friends who are willing to come help teach the 50 kindergartners through eighth-graders who participate in the school’s chess team.

All that work has garnered tables full of trophies, proudly displayed by the school’s front office. It has also helped members of the team find skills and talents they did not know they had.

To play chess well, team members said, takes determination, confidence, devotion, focus and patience.

While some people might be born with talent in some of those areas, the students said, they agreed that all those attributes can be developed with practice and hard work.

“Sometimes you need somebody to teach you,” said Trechelle Williams, a seventh-grader.

Luster said the most important of those qualities might be patience.

“In chess, as in life, you sometimes have to prepare for something before you do it,” he said. “You have to get your pieces in order and develop them.”

Reuana Horne, an eighth-grader, said Luster encouraged her to join the chess team because she was struggling in math. She could earn some extra credit through the chess team, he suggested.

“I like the strategy and the patience you need,” Reuana said before practicing for the All Girls/Women’s National Championship tournament April 12-14 at McCormick Place. “I like the thinking you have to do.”

She is no longer worrying about her math grade.

“It really helps with math,” she said.

Shakira Luster, a seventh-grader and the coach’s daughter, has been playing since she was a young child. In March, she was ranked 88th among 13-year-old girls in the United States by the U.S. Chess Federation.

In November, Shakira won the under-16 section at the Midwest All Girls/Women’s Championship as a 12-year-old. Her classmate, Imani Hill, took third place in the under-14 section.

In February, eighth grader Kiriana Williams won the first-place trophy for eighth-graders in the reserve division at the Greater Chicago K-12 Championship, and the team took the first-place team trophy in the kindergarten through ninth-grade reserve division and the second-place trophy in the kindergarten through ninth-grade novice division.

The team also cleaned up at the Illinois Catholic School Chess Championship in January, taking first place in the sixth- through eighth-grade division and third place in the fourth- and fifth-grade division.

In April, six girls competed in the All-Girls Nationals in Chicago. They were the only Illinois team in the under-14 division and came in seventh.

During tournaments, Luster said he walks the floor when he is able to, watching the way his students are playing so he knows what to work on with them.

The team usually has two practices a week, one for kindergartners through fourth-graders and one for fifth- through eighth-graders. There is a wide variety of skills in both groups, he said, but teaching is just like teaching a regular school class: You have to tailor the material to reach each player where he or she is.

“We can all be working on openings, for example,” he said. “But some are learning the basics and some are way ahead of that.”

Good preparation is about one-third playing games, one-third running drills and one-third studying, and some of the best learning can happen during tournaments, when a better player might take the time to explain to someone they’ve just beaten how they could have improved their game.

“That happens a lot with the adult tournaments,” Luster said. “I’m not sure how much it happens with the kids.”



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