Pawns Make Move to Capture Youth

Ayesha Rook
October 1, 1999

Ferdinand Moreno wants to be a pawn in the war on drugs.

Like Nathan Liebowitz in New York, Deborah Dixon in Georgia and Irene Dixon-Darnell in Nevada, he is a youth worker looking for adult white knights.
The English-as-a-Second-Language counselor is standing next to an oversized chess board painted on the Takoma Park Elementary School playground, watching Anthony, a 10-year-old whose family moved here several years ago from Guatemala, slide a plastic queen the size of a bowling pin into position. Moreno began teaching chess to immigrant youth three years ago, and the results were so stunning — grades soared and misbehavior dropped — that he set out to expand his Chess for Success program in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

But selling adults on the value of chess to kids is harder than teaching kids the intricacies of the game. “I can’t be in 12 different chess clubs, and I don’t have any teachers or parents who can or will run the clubs,” Moreno says. With a few exceptions, “teachers don’t see the value.”

The Maryland Substance Abuse Prevention Program did. It handed Moreno his biggest grant ($2,000) to buy chess sets, thus casting his positive youth development activity as an anti-drug abuse effort.

The struggles of Moreno and other chess boosters around the United States says a lot about what it takes for a fresh youth development concept to capture enough adult attention, manpower and money to become reality for kids. It’s one thing to navigate a board well enough to master the game traced to the rajas of sixth century India. It’s another thing to navigate the financing and networking of the youth work field of 20th century America —especially for outsiders.

“It’s a trick we haven’t completely figured out how to do,” says David Mehler, executive director of the U.S. Chess Center. “I think the expression is ‘clueless.’”

But they’re learning some moves. Several chess organizations have found that guiding kids is not enough; to get funding, they must try to address youth deficits. “The money is in crime prevention or drug prevention,” Moreno says.

In Reno, Nev., Project Chess just got a $40,000 grant from the state’s Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Abuse (BADA) to help it reach 1,800 kids. In the suburbs north of New York City, the Putnam County chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Other Drug Dependencies (NCADD) funds ChessChild, which reaches youth in libraries, churches and synagogues around Carmel. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is studying chess as a teen pregnancy prevention tool. And the New York-based U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) — traditionally focused on selling books and adding serious players to its roster of 48,000 adults and 38,000 youths — recently named a director of “prevention” programs.

Although chess is widely played internationally in youth centers and after-school programs, and is part of required curriculums in over 30 countries, its use as a youth development tool in this country is relatively new. Its proponents think it has enormous potential for kids of any ethnic, economic or social background, even though — in the words of Putnam NCADD Executive Director Nathan Liebowitz — “they have this image of chess as a slow, monotonous game played by old men.”

Square Lessons

Irene “Nana” Dixon-Darnell discovered the lure that chess can have for kids after she retired from working in Reno’s casinos and volunteered for a local after-school program for latchkey youth. One day she brought in her chess board to add to the meager collection of board games available, and says that “before I knew it, I was swamped.” Kids started trying to get into the latchkey program so they could play chess.

Dixon-Darnell went to the Reno chess club for help and got a chess instructor, but still needed a place to set up the boards. The Reno/Sparks YWCA offered a space one evening a week, then helped her write her first grant proposal in 1993 to set up her effort in local schools. Soon after, Project Chess was awarded a renewable annual grant from BADA, which receives its block grant funding from the U.S. Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP).

This year’s grant was $40,000. Project Chess also gets about $12,000 in private funding from sources like the B.C. McCabe Foundation, the E.L. Cord Foundation and the Truckee Meadow Boys & Girls Club. Now teaching chess in 14 schools to kids one hour a day for 10 weeks, Dixon-Darnell says the project reaches 1,800 kids a year.
That chess boosts academic performance has been demonstrated in studies from Texas, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to Canada, Belgium and Zaire. One of the largest programs, the New York-based Chess-in-the-Schools, instructs more than 20,000 low-income at-risk students annually.

But while many a youth development program must justify itself through improved test scores, pawn pushers say academic improvement is simply the easiest measure of the game’s many benefits. It teaches reasoning, deferred gratification, and seeing the consequences of decisions, Liebowitz says. Moreno’s Chess for Success stresses that chess teaches kids that they can control their destinies through their moves but must anticipate the moves of others, and that the game rewards long-term planning: a short-term obvious gain (pouncing on a vulnerable rook, for instance) sometimes produces a long-term unforeseen loss (such as exposing the king to checkmate).

Those benefits are among the reasons that the Boys & Girls Clubs of America includes chess as one of the suggested activities in Project Learn, its educational enhancement program. In Conyers, Ga. — the scene of one of this year’s notorious school shootings — Conyers/ Rockdale Boys & Girls Club Program Director Deborah Dixon brought the game to the club last year. She is amazed by the lessons it instills in kids.

“They learn to be patient, unaware they’re learning it,” she says. “I love it: watching these kids who can’t sit still, sit still for chess for hours.” The club team has between 10 and 15 members and has won a local tournament. “Chess reeks of comprehension. They plan and anticipate,” she says.

That’s why Liebowitz’s ChessChild program focuses on academically underachieving youth. Next to children of alcoholics, he says, they’re the group most at risk of using drugs. “You can’t lecture to kids about drugs. We’ve got to give kids their own tools to resist peer pressure,” says Liebowitz. While growing up in drug-infested public housing, he learned to play chess; he credits his long-term planning and ability to make healthy choices in large part to the game.

The Sell

So chess is good for kids; so are lima beans. For both kids and adults, Liebowitz says, “their preconceptions are that chess is a nerdy game. And I grant you, that’s a hard thing to get beyond.”

But once kids give it a try, chess proponents find, they embrace it. In seven years since the U.S. Chess Center was opened, it has taught chess to 8,500 kids in the Washington, D.C., area through school-based clubs and its Life Lessons program for underprivileged kids. For many kids, says Executive Director Mehler, chess is an equalizer, a game where gender and physical size don’t matter.

And unlike a lot of sports, it is a game at which an average youth can become competitive through reasonable effort. “Chess has a reputation that only smart kids can excel at it,” Liebowitz says. But when academically poor performers succeed, “They figure, ‘How stupid can I be if I can play chess and play it well?’”

Much harder is convincing adults to make room for chess in their curricula or support chess programs at youth centers. “The response I’ve always gotten is one of skepticism,” Liebowitz says. Because he is executive director of the Putnam NCADD, supported primarily through county and state funds, he has no problem budgeting about $2,000 a year for ChessChild. But out of the 140 affiliates of the NCADD, he knows only of “two or three other affiliates that are becoming interested” in adding chess to their repertoires.
Most national youth-serving organizations have not put chess on their youth development agendas. The YMCA of the USA, for instance, does not track how many of its 2,283 affiliates offer chess, as it does with many other programs. “We don’t think of it as youth development typically,” says spokeswoman Kristin Hurdle. Where chess programs have sprouted, such as at YMCAs in Reading, Pa., and Gastonia, N.C., it’s due to the initiative of local youth workers.

Indeed, adult manpower (rather than equipment and space) is the biggest obstacle to the growth of chess programs for kids. In Maryland, Moreno’s Chess for Success has received $500 from the county public schools, along with the $2,000 in anti-drug funding to start an after-school program at a local library. The problem: finding qualified chess instructors who can function as youth workers. He worries about relying on volunteers long term.

“Sooner or later they drop out if they aren’t paid,” he says. “You need a strong base” of dedicated, paid youth workers to sustain a program, which takes more money than anyone has been willing to put up.

A few miles south in Washington, Mehler sits at a table in the U.S. Chess Center stuffing and addressing envelopes. The mailing is to recruit kids into chess clubs that the center gets paid to run in local middle class schools. The center uses that money to fund its Lessons for Life chess program for underprivileged kids. This is the financial cornerstone of Mehler’s youth development program, “hoping that we’ll raise more money than it’s going to cost us to do the mailing.”

What’s the Plan?

If they are ever to replicate their local efforts on a grander scale, the chess advocates realize they need a cohesive strategy and more connections in the youth work field. So when Rachel Lieberman’s term as national secretary of the New Windsor, N.Y.-based U.S. Chess Federation ended this year, she volunteered to serve as director of prevention programs. So far its efforts appear to have won mostly pats on the back. Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics passed a motion supporting the USCF’s efforts to introduce chess “into schools, juvenile rehabilitation centers and other arenas in which the positive benefits of chess can be acquired by children and adolescents.”

Mehler has grand dreams: “The idea is that chess will rival soccer,” he says. “It’s wonderfully accessible. Everybody can do it.” Liebowitz believes chess can be promoted as a mentoring initiative, not just as an anti-drug or anti-teen pregnancy tool. Moreno of Montgomery County hopes to boost the movement with a book he has written on how to use chess as a youth development tool. So far, no publisher.

If the popularity of online chess and chess video games is an indication (or the 700 percent growth in the USCF’s youth membership over the past eight years), the game of kings might be making inroads among American youth. But whether the chessboard becomes a staple of asset-oriented youth development depends on whether adults can plot an effective offense.


Rook, Ayesha. "Pawns Make Move to Capture Youth." Youth Today, October 1999, p. 34.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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