Chess is the most popular board game in the world, and more schools around the country are teaching chess, including right here in the Houston area.

“I have a group of 20 kids who play on a regular basis,” said John Vargas, a Communities In Schools of Houston student support specialist who leads a chess club at Spring Oaks Middle School in Spring Branch Independent School District.

Vargas organized an invitational chess tournament, held April 29, to get more kids interested and involved. Spring Branch ISD middle and high school students were invited to participate, along with more than 70 chess players from around the Greater Houston area.

According to research, chess helps improve test-taking and problem-solving skills, boosts concentration and attention span and works both sides of the brain, which helps with creativity. Vargas said the students who participate in his club have made marked improvement in their grades, behavior and attendance in school.

“[For example, one student’s] math scores have improved over the years. He was a struggling student; he’s improved dramatically to where he’s scored pretty high,” Vargas said. “His behavior has even changed; his attendance has changed. And he plays chess all the time.”

Chess also introduces life lessons.

“They go home and improve things. They get better vision. Some of them learn sportsmanship; we teach them etiquette. They shake hands before and after a game,” Vargas said. “And when kids make a mistake, they say, ‘I lost that piece.’ That’s life. If you continue to make the same mistakes, you’re going to get the same result.”

The game, which can be traced back to players in the 6th century, serves as a unifier of people from all backgrounds. Two people don’t need to know the same language or be the same age; if they both know the rules, they can play chess.

“There’s a bridge – it bridges the kids together. You may have a club that’s just for girls, or volleyball’s just for girls, football for boys – but when it comes to chess, everybody comes together,” Vargas said. “It doesn’t matter their age, their races, their genders – it crosses all boundaries; it’s open to everybody. Whatever level they want to reach, they can reach.”

Chess is just one more way Communities In Schools of Houston helps educators and families support students for success in school, college, careers and in life. From tutoring, extra-curricular activities, and crisis support to internships, community service, and other college preparation services, Communities In Schools’ student support specialists do whatever it takes to help students thrive.

“John Vargas has poured his heart into thousands of students at Spring Oaks Middle over the years,” CIS Houston Board of Directors Member Allison Gower said. “Parents know him as the reason their children get the support they need to succeed in school. Thank you John! And thank you to all those who support Communities In Schools.”

The Spring Branch ISD Chess Invitational, which was launched with a $0 budget, was made possible thanks to generous sponsors, including VissmodesignsBrewingz Restaurant & BarCrosswalk Houston-A Ministry of Memorial Drive United Methodist Church and Spring Oaks Middle School. If you or your company would like to donate to CIS Houston in support of the Spring Oaks chess club and programs like it, visit