Fairfield, Bridgeport elementary schools forge relationship over chess

Photo of Justin Papp

FAIRFIELD — In the Riverfield Elementary School gymnasium on a recent Friday, Katherine Arevalo and Liliana Tuccillo were both focused on the chess board between them.

“I love how it’s not just about winning, it’s about thinking,” said Liliana Tuccillo, 9, a Riverfield third grader.

Tuccillo was thinking through not only her own moves, but the moves of her competitor, Arevalo, 10, who was playing her first game of chess.

At the same time, more than 30 similar matchups were unfolding on long tables set up in the school’s gym.

Arevalo was one of a group of Cesar A. Batalla students visiting Riverfield March 2 as part of a program begun by Tuccillo’s father, Matt, who heads Riverfield’s chess program.

“I knew Riverfield had the relationship as a sister school with Cesar Batala, but that didn’t involve a lot of interaction,” the elder Tuccillo explained. He decided to contact administrators at both schools and quickly got a green light. The first of two planned meetings took place at Cesar A. Batalla on Feb. 13. “The whole idea really is interaction and spreading this game a bit.”

The Riverfield School has had a decorated chess program for around two decades according to Tuccillo. The school’s teams have competed regularly around the state. Every year, Riverfield competes against the Burr Elementary School chess club, which has also established itself on the state level, for bragging rights and trophy that goes home with the winner, until next year’s competition. Burr won in 2016. Riverfield reclaimed the title in 2017.

On March 3, a day after meeting with the Cesar A. Batalla students, the club took home a state championship, placing first in two of three divisions at a tournament hosted by the University of New Haven.

According to Tuccillo, the pairing allows the more experienced Riverfield students to sharpen their skills by revisiting the basics, it exposes the Cesar A. Batalla students to a game not widely played in elementary schools, and it allows connections to be made between two student bodies, separated by little more than 5 miles, that otherwise may never have interacted.

The sessions being with a brief introduction to the game by Tuccillo, and then Fairfield and Bridgeport students are paired to begin playing.

“Many of our students walk a mile or a mile-and-a-half to school every day,” said Ana Batista, Cesar A. Batalla’s middle school talented and gifted teacher, pointing out that the weather that particular morning was windy and rainy. “That’s how I know these kids wanted to be here.”

Roughly 70 percent of Batista’s students speak another language at home, she said, so learning the rules of a new game from native English speakers is beneficial. Additionally, parents have become involved, in part because person chess sets were donated to each participant, thanks to the nonprofit Brighter Lives for Kids, and by volunteering at meetings of the chess club.

“We need more parent engagement and this is a great vehicle,” Batista said.

Elsewhere in the gym, at another of the long-folding tables, Riverfield fifth-grader Alex Dickinson, 10, was in the middle of a game with Cesar A. Batalla fourth grader Hector Gonzalez, also 10, and expounding on his favorite aspects of the game.

“My favorite part is the strategic moves and winning, specifically the move right before you win,” said Dickinson.

Gonzalez good-naturedly disagreed with his partner.

“I’m just playing for fun,” he said.

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1