“You’ve got to play with what you’ve got.”
Those words are applicable to everything in life, but Candice Usher, a fifth-grade teacher at Fuller School of Excellence on Chicago’s South Side, was offering this counsel to Charleston Rice the other afternoon as it applied to chess.
“Charleston!” she said.
She’d already chided him for a couple of exuberantly illegal moves.
“Think! Think before you touch a piece. You’re down to the wire.”
Charleston, who is 9, stopped fidgeting and stared at the board on the table in front of him, as his opponent, sensing defeat, propped her chin on her fist. He reflected in silence. His opponent covered her face with her hands.
Finally, Charleston pounced, made his victory move and popped out of his chair like a triumphant king.
“Shake hands,” Usher said, and Charleston reached across the table to shake the friendly hand of Ny’lah Seawood, who’s 10. They set up the board for the next game.
Shake hands, win or lose, then play again.
That’s another lesson that chess teaches — and another reason that Jerry Neugarten and his allies at the Chicago Chess Foundation are determined to bring the game to more Chicago public schools, particularly to ones like Fuller, where most kids come from families with little money.
“Chicago has the potential to become one of the top programs in the country,” says Neugarten.
I’ve written about Neugarten’s chess quest before, back in 2013. He’s a former Manhattan prosecutor, originally from Hyde Park, now retired in Highland Park. For years, he has brought a prosecutor’s doggedness to his desire to make chess, free chess, bigger and better for Chicago students.
Chicago public schools already offer chess in many schools, but Neugarten wants Chicago to be a strong rival to cities with more extensive programs, notably New York. He and his allies finally have an agreement that lets them build on their ambitions.
They ask for no money from CPS or the students, and are structured as a non-profit. They’re in 19 schools now and hoping to be in a couple hundred in the next two or three years. In addition to starting programs in schools, they’re sending top coaches into schools ready for advanced coaching and paying coaches more than they’re routinely paid. They already have 100 volunteers.
“They have a vision, which we share, of expanding chess throughout the city,” says LaTanya McDade, who is the chief officer, Office of Teaching and Learning, at CPS.
Chess fanatics will tell you, citing evidence, that chess is a life-enhancing sport.
“It builds a kind of grit in people that significantly improves lives,” says Neugarten. “It appeals, among others, to kids who are very aggressive. It’s a battle game. It appeals to some of the same instincts that kids have who do shoot-em-up games, arcade games. You learn that the only way you can get good at it is to slow down.”
At Fuller, the kids play on roll-up boards that bear the name of the Chicago Chess Foundation….