- Associated Press - Sunday, May 20, 2018

EVESHAM, N.J. (AP) - The large front room is bright, colorful and full of energy.

Dozens of tables are set up with chess boards and chess pieces on them.

Children start to come into the South Jersey Innovation Center from school, settle in at tables and begin to play chess. Some of them play side by side; others have a few tables to themselves.

Ben Lauer, 12, of Mount Laurel has been playing chess since he was 6 years old and won the junior high school state championship in November.

“I really like chess because it’s a strategic game,” said Ben, who comes to the center a few days per week. “I really like mental challenges. Chess fits it perfectly for me.

“It’s fun. Matches vary. Sometimes they end quickly, sometimes they take many hours.”

Ben said the center’s executive director Dov Gorman has been his main chess teacher.

“When I first started coming here taking lessons with Dov, it was kind of when I was just starting out,” he said. “Since then, I’ve improved a lot and I’m still getting better.”

The South Jersey Innovation Center has been at its location - 2003 Lincoln Drive West in an office park behind The View at Marlton shopping center - for more than a year. It previously was housed at the Cherry Hill Library and the Indian Cultural Center.

The center offers chess, 3-D animation, engineering, math, coding and robotics. Its website says it helps children “develop life skills, critical thinking and creativity through well-designed STEM programs and activities for students of all levels starting at 6 years old.”

Center regular Abhi Mishra, 9, of Princeton, recently was named the youngest ever National Chess Master, earning the honor in April at the age of 9 years and 2.5 months, besting his predecessor by 2.5 months.

Abhi joins great chess players such as the late Bobby Fischer, who was the only U.S. World Champion and became a master at 14.

In April, Abhi was ranked No. 2 among 9 year olds in the country by the United States Chess Federation and holds the record for youngest ever National Chess Expert, crossing the USCF Rating 2000 at 7 years 6 months, breaking the prior record by six months. He earned silver medals at both the 2017 World Cadet Championships in Brazil and 2017 Pan Am Youth Championships in Costa Rica, according to a release from the center.

Gorman called Abhi a “great role model” for all of them at the center.

“The other kids are very competitive with Abhi,” he said. “There are kids that have even beaten him. Ben is state champion. Maxwell Wang went to the nationals. We have kids that are at the national level.”

Diana Suralik, 13, of Voorhees is one of those. She’s ranked 25th for girls age 13 in the country by the United States Chess Federation.

“It’s strategic and engaging,” she said of the game she’s played since she was 5. “You can always be better at it. I like it. I like being competitive. It’s fun.

“The ratio of boys to girls in chess is like 8 to 1. There’s lots of girls better than me but the more girls interested, the better.”

Diana, who has played nearly 260 rated games in tournaments, was presented with a joint legislative resolution from state Sen. James Beach who visited her school on April 11 “in recognition of her superlative talents in the game of chess.” It also recognized her for the middle school chess tournament she organized and hosted on January 6 at the center.

The resolution commended her for being “dedicated to sharing her love of the game and to promoting chess as a positive and fun educational experience that can also sharpen ones critical-thinking abilities.”

The center also hosts the South Jersey Chess Club, which has monthly tournaments. Advanced students such as Abhi, Diana, Maxwell and Ben from the Innovation Center program get the opportunity to participate in the South Jersey Chess Club’s weekly adult tournaments, sharpening their skills.

“I started to play chess about two years ago,” said Maxwell, 10, who lives in Cherry Hill. “I played Go which is like a Chinese form of chess. The better I got at Go, the harder it was for people to teach me how to play and get better . so I had to go and switch to chess. In chess, it’s probably more worldwide.”

The innovation center says it helps with things such as academic advancement, time management and prioritization, critical thinking, reasoning and logic, teamwork building, goal setting and measurement, self-esteem enhancement and more.

Ali Arango is the 3-D modeling and animation teacher at the center, teaching students to design and build computer-generated objects.

“Cats, robots, transformers,” he said. “We make it up on the computer and then we have a green screen in the other room and are able to combine the two together.”

Gorman has a passion for chess and technology. He was a securities trader for Bank of America, then spent several decades in the technology industry in software development and was a principal of Summit Horizons LLC, working with Fortune 500 and 1000 companies, focusing on management compliance/fraud risk and business intelligence. He and his family moved to Marlton several years ago and he started his nonprofit, the South Jersey Innovation Center.

A native of Israel, Gorman is a World Chess Federation FIDE Master in chess. In his younger years he won two state championships, one in California and one in Virginia.

While there are many successful programs at the center, the chess program has really taken off.

Gorman has tutored Ben and said part of the challenge is figuring out people’s talents and how to best utilize and develop those talents. He quickly learned that Ben was a very strong tactical player, so they work on getting him into tactical situations.

“There are a few kids that are very passionate about it,” said Gorman. “It’s a very established program. Very clear about what they need to do and what is their career path. We make a very clear plan with each one, what they need to achieve each year. Things like that really help. The focus and direction.”

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Online:

https://on.cpsj.com/2wFVRLd

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Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.), http://www.courierpostonline.com/


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