The N.H. Executive Council recently approved a contract for more than $300,000 to integrate the game of chess into the curriculum for Granite State schools. But some members of the council questioned whether it was a good use of money.
During a meeting last week at Showroom in Keene, the council voted 3-2 to award a $309,558 sole-source contract to Chess in Schools, LLC, of North Carolina. With the money, the nonprofit will develop a plan with the state to use chess as part of the curriculum for middle and high school students, according to Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut.
“This is a program that will bring chess to the schools, basically training educators on how to integrate the game of chess into academic instruction,” Edelblut said, “primarily focused around the areas of mathematics and English language arts ... and it includes some logic stuff as well.”
Edelblut also noted there has been an uptick in interest around chess lately, largely due to the popularity of “The Queen’s Gambit,” a Netflix series released last fall that centers on a chess prodigy who is grappling with drug addiction.
A November report published by The New York Times said that in the weeks following the show’s premiere, sales for chess sets grew 125 percent. The report says this growth was on top of already rising chess set sales, attributed in part to more people staying home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is a bit of a phenomena taking place among our student population right now, probably because of the popular Netflix TV show,” Edelblut said. “Many kids are engaged in, and playing, chess. So we saw this as an opportunity to be able to capitalize on that interest of the students and engage them more deeply in their learning.”
He explained that the state was approached by Chess in Schools, which was interested in discussing whether the program could be implemented in New Hampshire. He added that the money, which is coming from a federal grant, will not be paid until a program has been put in place, and if the state decides not to go forward with it, the money will return to the state.
The funding comes through the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, part of the American Rescue Plan Act. The funds must be used to address learning loss related to the pandemic, according to a letter from Edelblut to Sununu and the council.
“Student engagement in an area of academic study is one of the factors that drives success,” he wrote. “The use of this program, [backed up] by independent research, improves student learning.”
The program would be voluntary, and teachers who choose to opt in would be required to undergo four days of training, which comes with a stipend of about $150, Edelblut said. The money approved also covers the purchase of chessboards and software that will complement the program. He said the goal is to launch the program in the fall.
While some expressed enthusiasm for the idea, including Gov. Chris Sununu, a couple of councilors questioned whether it was a good use of public money.
“I’m always amazed at government and what we fund,” said District 1 Councilor Joseph Kenney, R-Union. “I can go online right now and learn how to play chess.”
Edelblut said it’s a structured program that uses chess to teach principles within various academic subjects.
Kenney and District 4 Councilor Theodore Gatsas, R-Manchester, voted against the contract.
Councilors representing the Monadnock Region — District 2 Councilor Cinde Warmington, D-Concord, and District 5 Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford — supported the contract.
Some local educators said they are interested in learning more about the program. Keene High School Principal Cindy Gallagher said that while she needs to look into the program more, she was involved in a similar program when she was a student, which she enjoyed, and noted that the school already has a chess club led by one of the school’s math teachers.
Nick Handy, communications coordinator for the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District, said a chess club for middle and high school students was launched in April at the suggestion of a middle school student, drawing 13 members its first year.
“We are interested in looking at the planning and research that goes along with this contract with Chess in School[s] to see how chess could be implemented in school subjects at the middle/high level,” he said.