Chess-in-the-Schools changes lives

January 22, 2014 By Rob Abruzzese Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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A few years ago, several teachers at P.S. 160 in Borough Park decided that they wanted to put together a chess club. It was small at first while they taught elementary school kids the basics of chess and some simple strategies.

Then, three years ago, George Lauro got Chess-in-the-Schools involved, and everything changed.

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“They opened our eyes to the bigger game and the benefits of the game that the kids can get,” Lauro explained. “It’s amazing too because of the amount they learn as third-graders. It’s a lesson in humility for us because it’s not long before an 8-year-old destroys you.”

Chess-in-the-Schools is a non-profit program that teaches inner-city public school students how to play chess in the classrooms and, for some kids, it guides them all the way to college.

“They join our club, they go to summer camps, and they come to our tournaments every single week” explained Chess-in-the-Schools’ Shaun Smith. “Once we start a program at a school, three or four years later we’ll have taught the entire school how to play chess.

“It’s one of those things that people don’t think about too often, but there are so many kids that are playing chess. Since 1986, we’ve directly taught half a million kids how to play chess.“

Many people involved with the young kids are quick to point out the many ways that chess can help them develop. It teaches them humility, it shows them that physical sports like football and basketball aren’t the only ways to prove their self-worth, and, perhaps most importantly, it teaches them to think critically.

“They get so much out of this,” said Aswad Johnson, a chess coach at P.S. 335 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “It teaches them the importance of humility, gamesmanship, it helps them set goals. It also teaches them that there are consequences for their actions. Each move has a consequence, and they start to think things through and be a bit hesitant. That starts to carry over into their everyday lives.”

Chess-in the-Schools helps kids to learn the game in a few different ways. The most direct way is in the classrooms where, for 15 weeks, it meets with third-graders in class and during an after-school club. It also holds free tournaments during weekends and holidays and sponsors a summer camp.

Indirectly, Chess-in-the-Schools also helps kids through a program called Project Chess that teaches New York City schoolteachers how to set up a chess club in their school.

For the older kids, Chess-in-the-Schools helps them by providing jobs as tournament directors and coaches. It also helps to get them into college through a program called “College Bound.” That program provides certain kids with mentors that help tutor them and help them apply for college, including for scholarships and grants.

“Ultimately, at Chess-in-the-Schools, our goal is to get kids into college without paying a lot of money,” Smith said. “There are specific chess scholarships, but having it on your application when you apply for schools it looks really good. It shows schools that they can think critically. We also help them with their essays, and the kids that are really good will travel all around the country playing chess. It looks great on an application.”

Sammy De Jesus, a Brooklyn-born 25-year-old who has played chess since the age of 12, said that Chess-in-the-Schools changed his life. He explained how, at the age of 12, it helped him get over his inability to speak English, raised his self-esteem, provided him with a couple of jobs, and then eventually got him into college for free.

“It just started because I didn’t need to know English to play and it helped me meet new friends,” De Jesus said. “The College-Bound program was the biggest difference, though. They gave me a mentor, gave me a tutor that helped me write a college essay, and it eventually helped me get a full ride to college.

“I got a full ride to the college that I wanted to go to. That was such a big deal because when I first met with my college adviser, he actually laughed at me when I told him which college I wanted to go to.”

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