This coming school year, students enrolled in Ashdod elementary schools will be introduced to one of the world's oldest pastimes: chess.

As part of a city-wide program examining chess' influence on youth in Israel, students in Ashdod's 20 elementary schools are expected to compete against one another while wading through the game's strategies and ruses.

The Ashdod municipality's chess fetish began when city leaders introduced a program offering the board game to youths, particularly new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In time, young Israelis from all sectors of the population in the city expressed a desire to join. It was then that municipal leaders understood they had a hit on their hands.

"Ashdod was a trailblazer on this whole thing," said Mayor Yehiel Lasri. The program's success spurred the city and its educational department to incorporate chess into its regular school curriculum.

"Teaching children to play chess is designed to foster an ability to think, develop strategy and build patience, which will aid them in other subjects," Lasri said.

"This is a first-rate educational tool," said Yehuda Frenkel, the city's top education official. "It helps students improve positive, needed qualities that are not always tapped. Instead of teaching them mathematics and more mathematics the usual way, we decided to do it through the back door. Children love to compete and to excel, and we are giving them the stage to do so."

As part of the new initiative, some 3,000 students in third, fourth and fifth grades will receive two weekly hours of chess instruction. Within four years, the project is likely to expand and will include junior highs.

"In another four years, I expect to see all the children of Ashdod playing chess," Frenkel said.