Playing chess in school

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Thursday, May 16th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Competitive chess, and I mean competitive

Remember the old Saturday Night Live skit with Jim Belushi as the fiery, Bobby Knight–style, chess coach?

AUDIO: … dedicated to turning raw kids into chess champions. ‘You call that castling! C’mon! Why don’t you just give him the king?! Give it to ’im!’

OK, not competitive like that!

Today we’re going to visit with a team of 7th-grade chess players at an urban Detroit public school.

BASHAM: Yeah we are! Chess is serious business at Munger Elementary-Middle School. The team started just two years ago. But last month, they made it all the way to the U.S. Chess Federation’s National Junior High Championship! Quite an accomplishment.

EICHER: Yes, and WORLD Radio’s Laura Edghill visited the team both before and after their competition in Texas.

LAURA EDGHILL, REPORTER: It’s after school on a sunny but cool April Tuesday in a Detroit neighborhood that shows obvious signs of lingering economic stress. Broken windows and graffiti mark many homes.  

But there are also clear signs of hope. Fresh landscaping graces the front lawn of one charming home. Smiling children race out of school at dismissal. A colorful poster marks the school entrance telling students they’re amazing, smart, respected, and loved.

AUDIO: [Sound of students, school]

The school day is finished, but the Munger chess team is just getting started.

LAUCHLIN: So with Miss Davenport, can you set this up from the beginning? You play black, and we’ll see if Miss Davenport plays exactly that or if she plays something different. Right, OK. We’ll see what she does.

Joe Lauchlin is the head coach. He leaves his day job coordinating an adult learning lab to coach the rookie team 2 days a week.

He works alongside math teacher Sandy Davenport, whose classroom serves as home base.

KELSEY: Wait, Joe! If my queen and king are mixed up, I don’t want to do that anymore!
LAUCHLIN: OK. I was wondering what you were doing.

The students pair up at desks facing each other with a flexible, vinyl chess board unrolled across the seam. They play with plastic pieces that fit in a soft felt bag, making the kits lightweight and portable. Coach Joe scratches his head and swipes through sample exercises on his phone. He bounces between pairs of students.

COACH JOE: That pawn is not a part of your plans! Why do you need to move that pawn?
CRISTIAN: I’m trying to get to E7.

Gael Gomez and Cristian Perez reset their pieces, including the pawn in question. They square off again with Coach Joe’s assignment. He’s written a list of specific moves on the classroom’s whiteboard that the boys are supposed to follow. They smile frequently, and Cristian sings quietly under his breath as they play.

A few desks away, soft-spoken Myia Singleton faces Miss Davenport. The Munger math teacher is new to competitive chess, but very keen to learn. Coach Joe gives Myia a different assignment, and has her repeat it over and over to develop her confidence. She beats Davenport, brushes back her thick braids, and flashes a winning smile.

And from the front of the room, good-natured banter between Shaun Tinker and Kelsey Gibbs punctuates the entire 90-minute practice.

SHAUN: Is that, is that a teleportation spell? (laughter/giggling)…
KELSEY: You can’t go there! You in check!
SHAUN: Happy?

Teams like Munger’s have emerged as part of an overall strategy in Detroit Public Schools. It has two goals: improve academic achievement and promote critical thinking skills.

The sprawling urban district has made a significant investment in the teams. They cover tournament fees and provide equipment. This year they also used federal funds to send students to competitions like the national championship.

So why chess? Munger Principal Donnell Burroughs says the value goes beyond academics.

PRINCIPAL BURROUGHS: To me, it’s just important to sign up for something. Because you never know what triggers that interest…And then sometimes all it takes is a sense of belonging. You know, you belong to the chess club, now you on the chess team, now they’re bringing home trophies and a lot of times it just take some little thing to build their confidence up. And then the sky’s the limit.

Two weeks later, the team is fresh off their trip to the national championship. They competed in a field of 13-hundred players from 35 of the best teams in the nation. And they came back with a serious piece of hardware.

MISS DAVENPORT: How are you? Good to see you!

Even though it’s not an official practice time, two students already have their chess board rolled out and a game in progress. The rest of the team clusters around, eating their lunches and chatting. Miss Davenport asks them to describe their experience.

MISS DAVENPORT: How about walking into the hall? What did you see when you first walked into the hall?
STUDENT: It was humongous.
GAEL: When you entered this way, you started getting a whole ton of anxiety…Like you were nervous, you were scared, and sometimes it would mess with your brain when you were playing chess.

MISS DAVENPORT: What was the one thing that you learned?
STUDENT: Taking your time…Some of us speeded up too much in our games and then we lost because they took their time and we didn’t and we lost.

But even with some losses, this rookie team brought back the 10th place trophy. It sits on a nearby desk, and the students glance at it often and smile. It’s clear that they are proud of their accomplishment.

It’s also clear that these young teens are captivated by the game. It’s not hard to imagine why, with the examples they have in their coaches. Davenport is a second-career teacher who came from the banking industry and runs marathons on the side. She is teaching them that there’s always time to learn something new.

And what about Coach Joe? He’s passing on his love of the game…

COACH JOE: It’s just, like, fascinating, you know. And I hope that they also can love it and in that way just be fascinated by it.

But he also recognizes that chess can be a catalyst for success in other areas of life.

COACH JOE: It’s just always asking a question of: Why? At least a good opponent will make you ask that question about why you’re doing something. You have to look ahead and justify your decisions. But mainly, just ‘cuz it’s a beautiful game.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Laura Edghill reporting from Detroit, Michigan.

(Photo/Creative Commons, Peter Miller)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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