King Teaches Rook

The East Side's very own chess master

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Jorge Sammour-Hasbun, standing in the offices of Chess Master Connections on a recent Saturday afternoon, told me: “People ask me, ‘Why Providence?’ I love Providence. I’d like to see it become a chess mecca.” Born in Honduras, Sammour-Hasbun, a two time world chess champion at the ages of 10 and 12, is one of the four founders of CMC, an organization dedicated to providing world class chess instruction to children in kindergarten through 12th grade. Founded in 2007, CMC now provides chess instruction to nearly 250 children throughout Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Of those, about 200 are involved in after school programs and 50 participate in CMC’s chess academy, which includes chess instruction at CMC offices and participation in tournaments.

On this Saturday afternoon, CMC is hosting its weekly chess tournament, which is special because of the participation of Chess Masters from around the region, as well as local children. According to Sammour-Hasbun, who began playing chess at age five and is now an international chess master, this interaction between youth and masters is key. “I learned,” he says, “by playing with and watching the best.”

The room is silent. Ten-year-olds and 50-year-olds sit in silence, pondering their moves. Sammour-Hasbun is closely observing the games while we stand in the hallway whispering. He introduces me to his father, Jorge senior. He was a competitive powerlifter and, as he told me, he “taught [his son] Jorge everything he knows about chess.” Jorge senior is also a CMC instructor.

Sammour-Hasbun points to Tom Sorokin, a nine-year-old who recently won the state championship. “He just won state, but he’ll get beat badly today. But this is a good thing: learning to lose is just as important as learning to win.” Lawyer Times, a master from Boston who attends nearly every Saturday tournament at CMC, steps into the hallway to take a break. He tells me that you can tell the good players from the mediocre by observing their eye movement. “See that kid - his eyes are darting back and forth; he’s analyzing the entirety of the board. He's a good player. He’s thinking about the big picture. Mediocre players will fixate. Their eyes are still.” I tell him he has just pointed to Tom, the state champ. “Huh, what do you know. He’s a good player.” Times says the weekly tournament provides him a unique opportunity to compete with masters and kids. He says, “The great thing about chess is that it teaches children that their decisions have consequences.”

It’s clear that the instruction at CMC is making young chess players better, which is best measured by the chess rating system, a scale from zero to around 2600. The higher, the better. At a Wednesday training session, some of the kids, whose ages ranged from nine to 12, described their ratings improvement: Ryan Perrett improved from 400 to 1200, Cale McCormick from 472 to 1500, Niloy Singh from 500 to 1550 and Grant Whitney from 200 to 1300. To put things in perspective, Sammour-Hasbun, who, at age 14, became the youngest senior master in US history (a feat which requires a minimum rating of 2200) likely has a current rating in the 2400 to 2500 range, owing to his status as an international chess master.

But the benefits aren’t limited to chess, which - it seems - has taught them life lessons as well. Perrett says it’s taught him to think strategically, McCormick says it’s taught him logic, which has improved his math abilities, Singh says it’s taught him patience, and Whitney says it’s taught him problem solving. Ten-year-old Yooney Kim, who recently won the state championship, says he’s learned how to strategize. Sammour-Hasbun says that parents tell him how their children’s grades have improved during their time at CMC. “Chess,” he says, “teaches children how to win, lose, focus and set goals.”

Sammour-Hasbun started CMC in 2007 when he taught chess in an after school program in East Greenwich. He quickly found himself teaching chess in several local elementary and middle schools. About 10% of the kids enrolled in these programs wanted to compete, he tells me, but the infrastructure was lacking: there was no space for these kids to come together to practice and play with the best. This lead him, in 2011, to lease the office in Wayland Square and set up a chess academy, a space where local children could come for instruction and competition. He said: “It’s about building a chess culture here in Rhode Island.”

Chess Master Connections is located at 201 Wayland Square. For private lessons, contact jsammourh@chessmasterconnections.org or 497-8366.