NEW PORT RICHEY — As a young boy, Allyn Kahn was curious to try the game of chess. Since he didn't have a chessboard, he crafted one of his own.
"I was home sick with the measles and read about the game of chess in an encyclopedia," said Kahn, a New Port Richey resident. "So I made my own chessboard and pieces from cardboard. Then when my father got home, I challenged him to a game."
Kahn went on to become a professional chess coach who sends his students to national and regional tournaments; he also teaches math, philosophy and critical thinking. Yet he never gave up playing games — or, for that matter, creating them.
Kahn, 70, is the creator of Mentagy, a puzzle available nationwide as a board game, a book, a computer game, a newspaper puzzle and a phone app. Since its creation in 2008, the puzzle has won several awards, including the Creative Child Award, the Academic Choice Award and the Tillywig Brain Child Award. Yet when he first conceptualized Mentagy, Kahn was simply looking for a way to help beginning students learn what he regards as the "art" of chess.
"I was trying to find a game that was simpler than chess but that had some similar strategic concepts," he said. "When I couldn't find what I was looking for, the idea of inventing my own game came to me. One night, the rules of what eventually became the Mentagy puzzle just came to me in a flash.
"The puzzle grid is six by six, 36 cells. There are 26 letters in the alphabet and six vowels. In chess there are puzzles (that might encourage you to) place eight queens on the eight-by-eight chess board so that no queen can capture another queen. So placing six vowels so that no two vowels were on the same row or column seemed like it could work."
In Kahn's view, students might find the letters of the alphabet less intimidating than the royally inspired pieces of a chess set.
"In chess, we talk about different regions of the board — the center, queenside and kingside. So dividing the grid into regions or boxes just seemed logical," he said. "The rules are really quite simple. In all but the expert puzzles, you will find letters already placed in the grid. The object is to connect the letters in alphabetical order from A to Z so that each letter connects to the previous letter, either above, below, next to or on a diagonal. The box rule says that within each (two-by-two) box, the letters need to be consecutive. D, E, F is fine, but you can't have D, F, G in a box without the E. Finally, once you have placed all the letters, each row and each column must have exactly one vowel."
And once a player conquers the beginning puzzles in the Mentagy book, he or she can move on to intermediate and advanced levels. Also, people can try different strategies and complexity levels in the board and computerized versions of Mentagy.
Aside from serving as a tutorial for beginning chess students, Kahn says the game helps players of all ages hone their academic and critical thinking skills.
"Exercising the mind is just as important as exercising the body. Mentagy sharpens the mind," said Kahn, who teaches critical thinking online for Champlain College in Vermont and teaches chess to private students and in after-school enrichment programs in the Tampa Bay area.
"You learn to make choices, to look at the consequences and make predictions and make effective decisions. You learn to visualize and check your work."
Kahn continues to hear testimonials from those who say playing Mentagy has aided them in the advancement of other intellectual pursuits.
"One young person says she likes to do the puzzle when she first wakes up — kind of the same benefits as coffee," he said. "Older people say that the game helps with memory exercises."
One Mentagy fan is occupational therapist Jodie Stafford, whose children, Rylan and Leah, studied chess under Kahn's tutelage. She now encourages her patients to play the game.
"Playing the game helps the stroke patients with their neurological growth and improves their hand-eye coordination," Stafford said. "My kids think of the game as a lot of fun."
Joey Santana, 12, was introduced to Mentagy as a fourth-grade student at Countryside Montessori Charter School, where Kahn teaches chess and Mentagy sessions.
"I stayed playing it because it was pretty cool," Santana said. "It helps you learn, strategize and problem solve. It works your brain."
His mom, Monica Santana, agrees.
"Mentagy has helped my son with homework," she said. "And life."