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Castling and Camaraderie in Thomas Sharp Library

Thomas Sharp Elementary School principal Joe Gurcsik doles out snacks and strategy in equal amounts, teaching fourth- and fifth-grader Chess Club members the joy of the game.

An endgame is unfolding in the library of Thomas Sharp Elementary.

In between bites of soft pretzel, Eva Vanlaar, 9, is marshalling her forces against Lourdes Gonzalez, also 9. Seated at the head of their table, crossing guard Don Canning offers advice in equal parts to both.

“This one’s got the potential to be a grandmistress,” he says, indicating Vanlaar.

Canning knows talent. He used to play against ranked opponents in Collingswood back when there was an active chess club for players his own age.

“I took my lumps and learned a lot,” he says.

As the three look over the board, Principal and Collingswood Elementary Chess Club adviser Joe Gurcsik reminds the room of the afternoon's tutorial on how to avoid a stalemate.

But he also knows that first rule of Chess Club: socializing with your cross-town neighbor is as important as learning the fundamentals of the game.

“A lot of these kids don’t get to meet until middle school,” Gurcsik says. “Most of these kids have never seen [Sharp Elementary].”

As many as 30 fourth- and fifth-graders from all five of the borough elementary schools participate in the biweekly club, which meets from November to March, until baseball and softball schedules deplete their ranks.

The club also gives him a chance to hang out on alternate Wednesdays with his daughter, Samantha, 10, who attends .

Samantha Gurcsik has been playing chess for two years both at home and in the club, and says the game is "really fun."

“It’s something different,” she says. You have to really use your brain.”

The club is "always looking for donations,” says Joe Gurcsik, both financial—to send some of its better players to tournaments—and material, like chess sets and match timers.

It's also likely that guests bearing a box of pretzels and some good ideas about the Sicilian Defense would be welcome, too.

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