By Lee Davis
Balagee Govindan has accepted a challenge that would daunt others.
In a world of computers and rapid-fire video games, Govindan has a passion for teaching another kind of activity to young people. Govindan’s game of choice doesn’t make much noise, and people don’t stand in line waiting to purchase a new version of it at the neighborhood electronics store. All the game requires is a board and 32 pieces.
It’s called chess.
Govindan, a native of India who now lives in Hoover, is a United States Chess Federation certified coach who teaches the game to all ages, but primarily to children and teens. He developed his love for chess as a youngster in India, where he made his own chess boards by painting checkered squares onto planks of wood.
His interest in the game revived after moving to Alabama 10 years ago, when he taught his son Vikhram – only six at the time – how to play. Govindan was surprised how quickly interest spread. Friends asked him to teach chess to their children, and a program grew.
“First I was teaching one kid, then two, then it became 100,” he said. “Before I knew it I was teaching more than 300 kids.”
So after going through the proper certification, Govindan organized ChessKidsNation, which competes in chess tournaments across the country. Among his star pupils is Rochelle Wu of Bluff Park, age nine, who finished third while representing Team USA in the World Youth Chess Championship in South Africa in 2014.
ChessKidsNation offers group, individual and online classes. The online students come from 18 different states. There also are classes for those with special needs.
So how does Govindan promote a comparatively sedate, thinking-person’s game to a generation raised in a culture of instant entertainment? It may not be as tough a sell as many might assume.
“My mantra has always been, if we can get a kid to stop whatever they are doing for 30 minutes and give chess a try, we can get them,” he said. “We want them to think of chess as exercise for the mind. And when they see the trophies that they can win, they often get hooked.”
And yes, there’s a vanity element, as well, Govindan admitted.
“Kids can say that if they play chess, it means they are very intelligent,” he said, laughing.
Govindan, who is a software engineer for hospitals, said he uses a tactics technique in teaching the game to beginners.
“Chess is divided into three data metrics – the opening, the middle and the end,” he explained. “Kids can pick up the first five to ten moves very quickly. The middle part of the game is tactics – and 99 percent of success in chess is because of good tactics. I teach 22 different tactics that can work to put together a winning strategy.”
“Most first-time players see the chess board the same way,” Govindan said. “Initially, they are looking at 64 squares on a board. The key is to look at it like a family. How can one chess piece help another one that is in trouble? In many ways, life is nothing more than a giant chess board.”
Govindan said it is important for players of any age not to get overly caught up in winning or losing a particular match.
“If you are satisfied that you played a good game and did your best, that should always be enough,” he said.
And for Govindan, his work with chess is about far more than merely teaching a game.
“It’s about making a difference, and sometimes I can see it with my own eyes,” he said. “Once I taught a special needs child. His mother came to me and said that chess was the first thing with which the child had really connected. That’s what keeps me moving forward.”
His ultimate goal is to have a chess club or program in every school in Alabama.
And although that day hasn’t arrived yet, there are still plenty of talented young chess players throughout the state and the southeast. Many of them will be competing in the Alabama Quick and Blitz Chess Championships to be held Saturday, June 27 at Samford University. There will be numerous categories for competition and trophies will be awarded. For more information, the official website is www.chesskidsnation.com.
Balagee Govindan doesn’t have to make his own chess boards anymore, but he’s determined to make Alabama a giant chess board in its own right. ϖ