School & District Management

In ‘Chess Capital’ of St. Louis, Game Takes Root in Poor Districts

By Denisa R. Superville — January 12, 2016 5 min read
Sixth graders at Woodland and Kenneth C. Hanrahan elementary schools in the Jennings, Mo., school district take part in an after-school chess program, one of several that were launched in low-income districts in the St. Louis region last fall.

Nakya Pearson discovered the joy of playing chess as a student in the Hazelwood, Mo., school district. But when the 14-year-old transferred to nearby Ferguson-Florissant schools three years ago, she had trouble finding an after-school activity that challenged her the way the game of chess had.

She did not want to play basketball, and the other after-school activities were, in her words, “kind of boring.”

That all changed last semester when the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis and Ascension, a health-care company, teamed up to support extracurricular chess programs at 17 elementary and three middle schools in the Ferguson-Florissant district where, a year earlier, protests erupted over the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Nakya was among the 200 students to sign up for the program, which has the backing of an accomplished figure in the field: Maurice Ashley, the first African-American to become a chess grandmaster, who attended the program’s launch last September.

Chess and kids make a natural marriage, Ashley said.

“It was just a wonderful idea to support those kids, folks who live in the neighborhood, who are so much more than the sum of the stories that we recently heard,” he said.

Seizing on Ascension’s $45,000 donation, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis launched a corporate challenge with the goal of expanding chess instruction to every school district in St. Louis County. The global manufacturing corporation Emerson, the food company Post Holdings, UMB Bank, and a local resident, Laura Lueken, are among those that have donated to make chess available this academic year at schools in the Hazelwood, Normandy, and Jennings districts, according to Lauren Stewart, the chess club’s development manager.

‘Intellectual Training’

Those who promote chess in schools say the game helps students with critical-thinking, complex problem-solving, and spatial skills. In a 2014 review of research on chess’ educational benefits, William M. Bart, an education psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, concluded that while more rigorous research was needed, previous studies had shown evidence that “chess training has salutary cognitive and educational effects among school-aged students.”

One such study indicated that chess instruction could lead to improvement in math performance among special education students. Another, by James P. Smith and Bob N. Cage, in the journal Research in the Schools, found that African-American students in rural Louisiana who received chess instruction performed significantly better in math than students in the study’s control group.

Ashley, who has taught chess to underprivileged students, including in New York City, has seen firsthand how chess instruction can make a difference in students’ lives.

“I’ve seen my students who may have not been interested in school, who may have not been inspired by their circumstances, when they take up chess, they feel like they’ve found something they can chew on, that they can bite into,” he said. “And they have taken that training—that intellectual training that transfers so well into scholastics and into life—and really run with it.”

Some of his students have gone on to attend top universities, including Harvard, Yale, the University of Michigan, and the University of Maryland, he said.

Maurice Ashley, a chess grandmaster, encourages students who are learning the game of strategic skill at Walnut Grove Elementary in Missouri’s Ferguson-Florissant school district.

The push to expand chess into every district in the region makes sense given St. Louis’ rich chess tradition, its moniker as the “Chess Capital” of the United States, and its role as a regular host to tournaments and championship events.

“You can’t throw a rock in St. Louis these days and not hit a grandmaster walking somewhere,” Ashley joked.

Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent in Jennings, said without the support from Emerson, the district would not have been able to offer the program at two schools this year. Now, Jennings is contemplating adding competitive chess, and it is tracking the academic progress of students in the program to examine the game’s impact on their school work, Anderson said.

The chess programs are expanding after a tumultuous year for local residents and students. Since the August 2014 shooting death of Brown, the St. Louis region and several of its largely poor and African-American public schools have been under a microscope, with calls for more robust academic offerings for students.

Chess is not expected to be a panacea for all that ails the region’s school systems, but it can be a “real tool in the toolbox for teachers [and] administrators who are trying to help make change in the community,” Ashley said.

And it can help train students with skills they need to succeed in life, he said. Players are challenged to make sound decisions at every moment, and those decisions have real and immediate consequences, he said.

“If you make an error, you’ll end up losing the game despite the fact that you may have played a really good game for 40 moves,” he said. “One mistake, and you could lose the game.”

“So you have to be focused, concentrated,” he continued. “You have to be very disciplined in your thinking. You have to solve all these problems moment to moment. ... It’s you playing against a determined opponent, who is trying to defeat you. You have to take all these factors into account and make the right move, time after time. And that is training for life.”

Seeding New Chess Programs

The seeds for the Ferguson program were planted last summer when Frankie Ragone, an 11-year-old who lives in suburban St. Louis and plays chess competitively, asked his father, Nick Ragone, whether all schools in the area offered chess like his does. Nick Ragone, the communications chief at Ascension, couldn’t answer the question, and neither could anyone he asked at work the next day.

A quick call to the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, where the Ragones are members, revealed that most of the public schools in the area did not offer chess programs. However, Ferguson-Florissant’s new superintendent, Joseph Davis, had been inquiring about doing just that. Ragone ran to his boss with the idea of Ascension underwriting the program and got the green light to proceed.

It was just what Nakya had been looking for.

“It teaches you to think logically,” she said. “I think it would be something I would be interested in competing in. I’d like to do that.”

Her mother, Lakysha Jeffries, is equally happy that the district has added chess. She also likes that a program, which is not as widely available to students in the area as sports activities, is offered at no cost.

“I was especially proud of her for having an interest like that,” Jeffries said. “One, she is young; two, she is female; and three, it’s a mental sport.”

Nakya and her mother said the game was helping the 8th grader become more independent and confident.

“It allows her to use her mind, and, like she said, be strategic about making better decisions ... as she becomes a young adult,” Jeffries said. “Just the fact that it is actually helping her to be more independent and [with] her schoolwork, I feel like that will be very helpful.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as In the ‘Chess Capital’ of St. Louis, Game Takes Root in Poor Districts

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