All The Right Moves

By Peter West — January 01, 1994 6 min read

The overcast dawn is barely breaking as a group of 1st and 2nd graders pour into a classroom at Community Elementary School 70 in the Bronx and begin eagerly laying out chessboards and setting up pieces. Soon, teacher David MacEnulty is fielding questions from the young chess players. “Mr. MacEnulty, is this checkmate?” one child asks. MacEnulty walks over to find out.

On this dreary fall day, MacEnulty is battling an encroaching case of laryngitis. But, during a lull in play, he walks to the blackboard and, struggling to make himself heard over the roar of traffic from the Cross Bronx Expressway several floors below, begins to explain intricate opening gambits and the value of the pawn.

He sets up two pawns on a special chessboard hanging up front and notes that one is in a very good position to “undermine” the other. Looking closely at the attentive faces around the room, he asks, “What does undermine mean?”

Greeted by an uncomfortable silence, he beckons to a student to join him at the board. In a fluid motion that surprises the victim and delights the audience, he takes the boy’s arm and uses a martial-arts sweep-kick to knock away one leg and lower his victim to the floor. “It means: take away support,” he declares.

At 8:30 a.m., the first bell of the day rings, and the players bolt for class. But, unlike most chess club sponsors, MacEnulty’s coaching doesn’t end when the bell rings. For him, the hour-long session is a warm-up. The district’s only full-time chess teacher, MacEnulty spends his days dashing from classroom to classroom, trying to cultivate a “culture of chess” amid the poverty, graffiti, and razor wire of the South Bronx.

MacEnulty is working hard to make the game an integral part of the curriculum, something relatively few districts nationwide have attempted. He does so because he believes playing chess can teach what so many educational nostrums promise but seldom deliver: higher-order thinking skills. “The better you are at solving problems on the chessboard,” he says, “the better you become at solving problems in general.”

MacEnulty, a former Navy bandsman, professional actor, and real estate agent, credits the fact that he is teaching chess at CES 70 to the foresight of the late Cliff Jackson, a former district administrator. Jackson strongly believed that learning chess would help the district’s poor, predominantly African-American and Hispanic students develop the habits of mind that are key to academic success.

But MacEnulty also credits the American Chess Foundation’s “Chess in the Schools” program with setting him on the road to his newest career. Since the mid-1980s, the program has sent highly qualified chess players from the prestigious Manhattan Chess Club into the public schools for six weeks at a time to distribute chessboards and pieces and plant the seeds of curiosity about the game. Participating teachers are expected to act as coaches and recruit students to help teach their classmates about the game.

The program, which reaches roughly 130 schools in the New York area, has had its share of successes. The “Raging Rooks,” a chess team from a Harlem junior high school, grew out of an initiative to teach the game in one of the most troubled neighborhoods in the city. The team made headlines in 1991 when, against all odds, it triumphed over competitors from prestigious public and private schools to tie for first place in a national competition.

Recently, the program has taken root in other cities with large numbers of disadvantaged students, such as Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco. “This is something that appears to have `legs’ in the sense that we get a lot of results, fairly quickly, for a small amount of money,” says Allen Kaufman, executive director of the ACF.

Cognitive scientists are divided, however, over whether the skills learned playing chess actually translate into improved academic performance. IBM commissioned a study of a Chess-in-the-Schools program at a Bronx elementary school with some of the lowest reading scores in the city. While no direct correlation was found between chess and academic performance, the researchers concluded that students who learned chess improved their reading skills much faster than those who did not play the game.

Still, the belief that the game promotes logical habits of mind appears to be largely responsible for its growing popularity in schools, says Sharon Brunetti, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Chess Federation. The number of educators calling the federation for information about how to start a chess program is on the rise, she says. The callers often say they are interested in the game as an instructional tool, rather than as an extracurricular activity. Membership in the federation—the game’s national governing body—has grown from 50,000 to 70,000 in the last five years, with children and teenagers accounting for 90 percent of the growth.

Walking across a hectic schoolyard at CES 70, MacEnulty mentally adds up the number of K-2 students he teaches in a given week. The total, he decides, somewhat amazed, is close to 300. He is particularly pleased at this moment because several students in the kindergarten class he just left claimed to already know all about chess. They may have been bluffing, MacEnulty says, but they may also have learned from an older brother or sister who studied the game with him last year.

As an outgrowth of his work, MacEnulty is developing a curriculum specifically for teaching chess in public schools. While numerous chess primers and handbooks exist, most, he notes, were written by chess masters, who rarely have experience working with students like those at CES 70. Such experience is important, he says. Recently, he tried to teach a group of kindergartners where to place the rooks at the beginning of a game, but he discovered that many students only recognized the word “corner” in its most concrete sense—as the location of a neighborhood store. To attempt to teach the complicated moves of pawns, bishops, knights, and queens without first addressing deficiencies such as this is self-defeating, he says.

MacEnulty’s classroom performances are kinetic and enthusiastic; he not only teaches students how to play the game but also imparts knowledge about the history, sociology, and politics of the pieces and the way they move. He explains to one class, for example, that while the goal is to capture the king, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board. He points out that all of the pieces are laid out like opposing armies. “They’re going to fight to save the king,” he says. “But you know what’s nice about this fight? Nobody gets hurt.”

In another classroom, students learn how the bishop moves by coloring diagonal lines on a mimeographed chessboard. The facile exercise, MacEnulty notes, is really a lesson in spatial geometry. Later, in yet another classroom, students come to see that the role of the lowliest piece of all, the pawn, is often the most complicated to understand because its moves are so varied.

In every class, MacEnulty stresses the logic behind the game. He firmly believes that once students master the moves and the mental discipline that chess requires, they will have learned that there are alternatives to the chaos and aimlessness that so often pervade their lives and hamper their efforts to succeed in school.

“Here, on this board, there is order,” he explains. “There’s a sequence of things that can happen. You can foresee them, and you can prepare for them.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as All The Right Moves