All six pairs of eyes, open wide, are trained on the instructor at the front of the makeshift classroom.
The teacher is shouting instructions as he points to a large chessboard on the wall, and the children, ages 6 to 11, are quietly following his every move, perched behind borrowed chess sets.
Welcome to "Chess Beats the Streets," held after school on Fridays at the Center for Joy, 1117 Michigan Ave.
James E. Ware started the program six years ago in Buffalo and expanded it to Niagara County a little more than a year ago. He and fellow instructor John A. Herowski received a grant to bring the program to the Center for Joy last fall.
"Chess is not always about winning," Ware said. "It's about sportsmanship, using critical thinking and logic. Kids' minds are just like sponges. They take these things we teach them and expand on it."
"I really love chess, because we learn fast," said Kianna Averhart, 7, a first-grader at Niagara Street School. "And when someone tells me to do something, I do it because you should listen to the person telling you something."
Ware began teaching chess to his own three sons when they were not much younger than Kianna. Ware said he has been playing the game for about 30 years and has collected more than 200 books on it. He is now teaching his 2-year-old granddaughter, Myari.
Ware's son, Ski-Yaun, 26, often helps his father teach, and son Jamie, 17, also plays. Ware's youngest son, Ahmoud, and Vance Williams, are nationally ranked chess champions, Ware said. Both 16-year-olds attend Buffalo's Lafayette High School.
"We teach from beginning to tournament level," Ware said. "They can use their minds and earn money, because now they can earn scholarships to college for chess. This is a growing sport."
Ware said chess is a way to reach children with emotional problems and learning difficulties. "This project is really working; I believe in what I'm doing. I feel this is my calling. If I had a job, it would be teaching chess," said Ware, who is disabled.
Sister Mary Francis Bassick, director of the Center for Joy, said, "It amazes me that these kids can play chess. My father taught me when I was little, but I don't know strategy.
"They hold that this teaches them problem-solving and math skills. And it seems that the kids that are usually the most easily distracted are the ones that are doing the best here."
While a handful of earnest students is a start, Ware and his colleagues have a lofty goal -- teaching chess to 2,200 children by this summer.
"We're close to that now," said Ware, who runs this program in conjunction with the Niagara Falls Chess Club, operated by Herowski.
In addition to the Friday sessions at the Center for Joy, Ware brings "Chess Beats the Streets" to Miracle Faith Tabernacle on Main Street on Tuesdays, the Lewiston Public Library on Saturday mornings and St. John Baptist Church in Buffalo on Mondays and Thursdays.
The Niagara Falls Chess Club meets Thursday evenings at the Echo Society, 341 Portage Road. The sessions are generally geared to adults interested in competition. The fledgling Lewiston Chess Club offers instruction and competition for ages 6 through adult on Saturday mornings at the Lewiston Library. For more information or to start a chess program in your area, contact Ware at 282-4920 or Herowski at 284-0361.
Ware said his group also would like to bring a major chess tournament to the area by 2000. He said his students have entered more than 30 tournaments from Chicago to Philadelphia in the last six years, but that costs money. While federal, state and local governments and groups such as the Joy Foundation and Lewiston Council of the Arts have helped with grants, the group needs more money to reach more children and help them travel to competitions, Ware said.
"This is keeping kids off the streets," he said. "We're reaching them spiritually, telling them that they're worth something. This country keeps building jails, but I think that it will take churches and community based programs to get kids back into the mainstream of life."