Chess ‘is like running a marathon using your brain’ for Akron kids

by Colleen Carroll 

If you’re looking for ways to engage your kids’ neural networks, Kala Kanapathy-Bagley can give you a 64-piece solution.

“Chess is like running a marathon but using your brain,” Kala says. “Chess makes you think outside of the box and analyze problems.”

Kala and her family are avid brain athletes. Several years ago, Kala’s husband, Sanjaven, encouraged her to start a Discovery Chess Club at the Discovery Montessori School near Fairlawn Heights off of Schocalog Road, where Kala works as office manager. 

“Chess is a way of life,” Sanjaven says. “It’s about deep analytical thinking, planning ahead and reacting.” 

Kala and Sanjaven instilled this problem-solving skill in their daughters, 15-year-old Hemma and 9-year-old Saadikha, early on. Both have competed and placed nationally. Now, Kala and Sanjaven are encouraging other parents to jump on the chess board.  

The Discovery Chess Club was founded in 2007. The club’s 40 students represent a range of skill levels, from beginners to seasoned competitors. 

“Parents seek chess out for the benefit of the children,” Kala says.  “Most parents look at it as a mind game to help the kids settle down.” 

Kala began with 15 students, some as young as four years old, who were entirely new to chess. 

When asked how one gets pre-schoolers to participate in such a stereotypically serious activity, Sanjaven and Kala explained that, first, chess is actually quite lively; and additionally, Kala has a Mr. Rogers-esque ability to engage people.  

“The ability to get [kids] interested and curious about it, Kala has that,” explained Sanjaven. 

Seven-year-old Trenton Preston joined Kala’s chess crew only a few months ago and is already fully hooked.

“He brought his board on vacation,” says Linda Ray, Preston’s grandmother. “He learned the moves and pieces so quickly. He gravitated to it.”

“He likes the opportunity to learn how it works,” Linda adds. “Kala shows him how to learn and play different people.”

Four-and-a-half-year-old Nathan Yadavalli started lessons with Kala in January.

“I wasn’t sure if it was too early to start for him,” says Nathan’s mother Anu. “Kala assured me he was ready. He was like a duck to water with [chess].”

Nathan brought chess home to his family. Anu has begun to learn the game so she can play with him.

“The way he shows interest it will be a big part of his life,” says Anu. 

“It’s considered a boring game, and for a child to actually enjoy doing this, as a teacher, you’ve done your job,” Kala says. “It’s not about the winning, it’s about getting the child engaged.”

Kala and Sanjaven explained that many facets of chess have the ability to promote healthy skills within a developing mind.

“Every move on the board is a new puzzle. Problem solving becomes habit for children as a natural process in their life,” says Kala.

Kids learn through their mistakes, and Kala presents both losses and wins as learning opportunities.

Linda explains that 7-year-old Trenton’s whole outlook on losing and winning is changing as he plays.

“Chess teaches maturity and integrity,” says Trenton’s grandmother Linda. “Seeing himself improve builds on his confidence.”

While instructing, Kala and Sanjaven have witnessed kids gaining confidence through playing opponents from all demographics. 

“It teaches them to not judge a book by its cover,” says Sanjaven. “Children can play any age group and gender, big or small, boy or girl. It boosts a lot of self-confidence.”

“A lot of chess is playing yourself,” adds Kala. “The children gain emotional strength and resilience by learning from their mistakes.”

At the beginning of June, Kala created and hosted the inaugural Northeast Ohio Chess Championship. Kala, who serves as secretary for the Ohio Chess Association, wanted to make an accessible tournament for the talent in the Northeast Ohio area. 

Chess tournaments charge high entry fees and traveling can be expensive, explains Kala. “A lot of Akron city school kids do not get the opportunity of traveling to see the grandmasters or games at that level.”

In the tournament, 106 players participated in both an open and scholastic section on June 1. Scholarship awards were available for the section of K-12 students. 

Kala invited some chess celebs to the event, including Grandmasters Alexander Shabalov and Elshan Moradi Abadi.

“I felt it was a way to help the foundation to start to grow,” Elshan says. “I’ve known Kala a long time.”

Elshan has held a grandmaster title, the highest title a chess player can hold, since 2005 and competed in the 2011 Chess World Cup.

“Kids have a lot of momentum, they have interest and initiative, they have a lot of potential,” Elshan says. “It is encouraging to take part in programs that help chess grow and develop in the community.” 

Many of Kala’s own students competed in the scholastic section of the tournament. First-time competitor Trenton won his first round and Nathan was excited to meet the grandmasters. 

“I’m so glad there is an opportunity like this,” Linda says.

“It’s not really a club, it’s a community,” says Kala. “Sometimes I call it a community outreach program; everyone becomes connected through chess.”

Kala also teaches lessons through camp at the Jewish Community Center and is planning on expanding lessons to adults and seniors because, as Sanjaven explains, “It’s a sport you can play your entire life.”

As for the future of Northeast Ohio’s chess community, Kala and Sanjaven want to see growth in the community as well as the kids. 

“We really want to get kids into [chess] and make it available to other children,” Sanjaven says.

“It can make a huge impact on these kids moving forward.”

Colleen Carroll is a journalism student at Kent State University.

Photos used with permission from Kala Kanapathy-Bagley.