He’s Hudson County’s Pied Piper of chess, drawing young children out of their shells and then inspiring them to learn one of the world’s most challenging games.
It’s a second calling for semi-retired Union City native Peter Croce. For the last 15 years, he’s taught kids from Union City, Weehawken, Hoboken, Jersey City, Secaucus, and Bayonne.
“I’m scattered around a lot,” he said. “I go where the people are really interested.”
A game he learned at 5 years old lay dormant in him for years. But after it was renewed, he threw himself headfirst into playing, including tournament competition. He then decided to give teaching it a whirl.
That’s led to impromptu sessions all over the county. He runs a tournament the third Sunday of each month, usually in the morning, and all are invited. Venues have included the William V. Musto Cultural Center in Union City, Lincoln Harbor in Weehawken, many county parks, YMCAs, libraries, McDonald’s restaurants, and the Newport Centre Mall food court.
“All you need is a couple of tables,” Croce said. “Anywhere you can put a board down, you can play.”
He’s currently runs “Chess in the Park” every Sunday in the summer in Hoboken, at Fourth Street Park. He said the Hudson County Board of Freeholders is expecting to sponsor a chess event in September, at either Columbus Park in Hoboken or Washington Park in Jersey City/Union City.
“All you need is a couple of tables. Anywhere you can put a board down, you can play.” – Peter Croce
“A lot of chess teachers won’t take on 4 or 5 year olds. I feel that’s the best age to teach a child,” he said. “It’s a challenge. But I like challenges.”
They’re like sponges soaking up the game, he said.
They are also more committed to learning the game at that age, because when they get older, they are pulled in other directions by new and varied interests. That age group also appreciates his efforts.
“I’m giving myself to every single child who wants to play it,” Croce said. “I always wanted to do some coaching and never had the opportunity to do it. I teach it now because I see the beauty behind it.”
Croce’s passion for the game was reignited following a “rough” divorce. He was advised to take up some hobbies, and attended a chess grand master exhibition at a mall.
Following that, he was playing in a park when a young boy asked what he was doing.
“After an hour I had the kid playing a full game,” he said. “He loved it. And I was able to give him the knowledge I had.”
Croce said he had to be patient with younger kids. But the patience has paid off, because they’ve excelled at the highest levels in state competitions.
His students have won 15 New Jersey Chess Federation Championships.
It makes Croce happy to see students walk away with trophies, because he knows how hard they worked to get to that level.
“It’s just the enjoyment of seeing my children succeed, seeing the children progress,” Croce said. “It’s the beauty of seeing a child start using tactics and reaching their goals.”
Croce also is happy that his students are not only learning about a game, but about life.
He beams when talking about how much parents appreciate his efforts.
A Hoboken woman has two daughters, 9 and 7, who have been coached by him for more than two years.
“What I like about him is that he’s able to easily develop children’s interest in chess,” she said.
Her 9 year old said that Croce has taught her strategy and tactics.
Her mother said, “They have a project at school where they can pick any topic to do – and she picked chess.”
Though they also have a chess club at school, her daughters prefer Croce’s instruction.
Croce is part of the Hudson County Chess Association and encourages those of all ages to visit http://hudsoncountychess.tripod.com/ to learn more about local activities.
Croce charges nominal fees for his instruction.
“I’m not trying to make money. I try to keep rates down. I work in volume,” he said. “I don’t like to see kids not come. I have a saying, ‘Half the rate, double the value.’”
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.