The players faced off against each other across a table at Germantown’s John B. Kelly Elementary School.
The game began with a firm handshake and a slight smile. Except for the whirr of a fan in the background, the only sound in the room was the tap of pawns, bishops, rooks and other pieces moving on and off the game board.
With every turn, the players concentrated intensely on the board and recorded their movements on a score sheet. When it was over, the players shook hands again and congratulated the winners.
The scene, which unfolded one day last month in the library of the Kelly School at 5116 Pulaski Ave., looked like a professional chess match.
But the four players at the table were all students at the Kelly School and they were in training for a trip to the upcoming national chess tournament, which is expected to draw some 6,000 students from across the country to Nashville on May 12-14.
Nervous and excited
“I’m nervous and excited about the nationals,” said Kinson Holland, a fourth grader who began playing chess just last year and who is now teaching his five-year-old brother how to play. “It didn’t take as long as I thought to learn.”
For the Kelly School, where most of the students come from low-income African-American families, sending four students to the U. S. Chess Federation’ s Supernational VI competition is a major milestone.
Last year, fewer than 25 percent of the school’s 700 students in kindergarten through fifth grade scored at or above the proficiency level on statewide reading and math tests. The chronically underperforming school is also struggling to improve student retention and school climate.
Brad Crable, a chess instructor who began the chess club at Kelly last year, has worked hard with the four students who stepped forward when chess was offered as an after-school program. Besides Holland, the other members of the team are third grader Cerena Rodgers, fifth grader Cianna Rodgers and Mehki Holly, who is also in the fifth grade.
The team is on a rigorous schedule. They practice four days a week, meeting in the library after school. Monday through Wednesday is devoted to the study of individual moves and strategy. On Thursdays, the students put their knowledge to work by playing matches against each other, simulating the 40-minute matches in competitive tournaments.
Crable, an experienced chess instructor who lives in Germantown, oversees the practice sessions, diving into the minds of his players and challenging them to think through every move they make. While the students are competing, he sits back and watches the moves. If he sees a player make a questionable move that sets them up to lose later, he jumps in and suggests that they go back and rethink it.
“Chess is a war of attrition,” Crable explained. “The winner is always whoever makes the second to last mistake.”
Crable has given each member of the team a book and binder full of game information to study at home. He also supplies exercises to be completed by the players in their free time during the week. For their part, the children have risen to the challenge.
Fun to learn
“It’s fun to learn about new things,” said Cerena, the youngest member of the team. “I like reviewing what he (Crable) has taught us,” commented Cianna. “You have to clear your head, but you also gotta think about the possible moves,” said Mehki.
The team qualified for the national competition by doing well in the Philadelphia Scholastic Chess League and placing fourth in the Pennsylvania Chess Federation Championship. To pay for the trip to Nashville, the team has raised $2,000 but is still taking donations to help defray costs. The link to donate is https://www.gofundme.com/jbkchess.
“These kids have essentially stepped into a brand new world and have stuck it out and done pretty well,” said Henry Holland, Kinson’s father. “I’m really proud of all four of them.”
In Nashville, the Kelly students will be among some 80 youth from Philadelphia public schools competing with their peers across the country. The trip is co-sponsored by the city’s After School Activities School Partnerships, a non-profit group, and the newly formed Philadelphia Chess Society, another non-profit.
“There is a very rich African-American chess community in Philadelphia that a lot of people don’t know about,” said Crable.
Up until the early 1990s, chess was largely seen as a game for white children from upper-middle class families. But in 1991, an all-black team from Harlem, the Raging Rocks, became national champions by beating teams from predominantly white private schools.
While black players have been steadily advancing to the master level, Maurice Ashley remains the only African-American to become a chess grandmaster. According to Crable, he is expected to be at the Nashville competition along with Gary Kasparov, the former Russian chess grandmaster who now lives in New York.
Crable and other educators say that chess is an important teaching and learning tool that helps young people learn the skills they need to achieve academic success. When you play chess you must be focused, anticipate the moves of your opponent and plan your own moves in advance. These are the kind of critical-thinking skills that are often required in the classroom – and in life.
“What you need most in life is the ability to think and process,” Crable said.
A power equalizer
For low-income African-American children, the game may also be a power equalizer, according to Ashley, who was interviewed as part of the PBS documentary “Beyond the Color Line” in 2004. “Chess transposes the imagination of inner-city black kids so they can see themselves in the back row where all the power pieces are,” Ashley told Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
In Philadelphia, Crable would like to see chess included in the public school curriculum. Canada and European countries, he said, make chess a part of math classes. But budget cuts in the Philadelphia School District mean that at most schools chess has to be offered as an after-school activity rather than as part of the required curriculum, he said.
It is also challenging, Crable explained, to get parents interested in chess. “In the African-American community,” he said, “you have a lot of parents who will push their kids toward sports like football, basketball and track because, hopefully, their children will get college scholarships.”
He added: “Believe me, I wholeheartedly get the point,” noting that his own daughter, who loved chess, nonetheless went to college on a swimming scholarship.
Even so, chess may be gaining some cache as a sport on some college campuses, Crable said. At Webster University in St. Louis, he noted, two African-American students, who are expected to be the next to become grandmasters, are attending college on full scholarships. Webster, a progressive school founded by the Sisters of Loretto, has earned a reputation for having one of the nation’s premier collegiate chess programs.
While parents fear that chess is an expensive activity, Crable debunks that notion. A good chess set, he said, costs $30. Membership in the U.S. Chess Federation, which is required for competition, costs $20 a year. Tournaments can cost anywhere from nothing to $200.
“Compared to other activities, the cost to get into chess is dirt cheap,” Crable said.