A Chess Coach Ponders the Possibilities of Chess

Cook Elementary students with chess trophies

Students display their first and second place trophies after a YCFC tournament

Although chess is an engrossing, profoundly intellectual activity, there are elements of art and sport in it. Thus, it appeals to all ages, races and genders. It is an entrée into other cultures and societies; a veritable bridge between generations. When children are “taught” how to play chess, they “learn” much more than how to conquer a board with 64 squares and 32 pieces. They learn valuable lessons that are transferable to other arenas of their lives. Adults who advocate teaching children how to play chess know this. As a chess coach and instructor of more than ten years, I know this, but I will never, ever cease to be amazed by the possibilities and wonders of chess.

My first chess team was a medley of 20 students who seemingly had nothing in common but chess. They ran the gamut from serious to carefree, lackadaisical to studious, neophytes to experienced players. One of the more experienced players was an eighth grader named Titus.

Titus was a rough boy with presumed gang affiliations. In fact, he informed me at the start that he and a few other boys on the team would not be wearing their red chess shirts in school on team days because it could be hazardous to their health! These boys roamed the streets at night and had scars from their battles to prove it.

Cook Elementary Students engrossed in a chess game

Students engrossed in the game

Before he joined the chess club, I rarely saw Titus, because the upper grade students at my school have rooms on the second floor. I was a fourth grade teacher at the time, so I spent most of my time on the first floor. After I got to know Titus a bit, it was kind of like what happens whenever I buy a new car. Before I purchase it, I don’t see it much, but after I buy it, I start seeing it on every road I travel.

Unfortunately, most of “where” I saw Titus was in the designated detention room or in the office, waiting to see the principal. This disturbed me, but I didn’t feel like I had developed the kind of rapport necessary to have a conversation with him about his troubles. Fortunately (though I didn’t like the idea at the time) his homeroom teacher decided to punish Titus by threatening his chess team participation. She came to me and voiced her opinion that Titus should not be afforded the pleasure of an extra-curricular activity since his behavior during the day was so abhorrent. I knew she was right, but I was miffed by the fact that she chose to punish him via me.

4th graders from Cook celebrate chess victory as a team

Fourth graders celebrate a second place win.

I liked Titus and enjoyed having him on the team, so I decided that maybe I could talk to him and let him know what was at stake. Titus, his teacher and I were able to agree to a month’s probation during which Titus would “get his act together.” I tried to do my part by letting Titus come to my classroom during lunch to play chess with me a few times a week. I’d “pop” into his classroom at random times for various reasons. I reprimanded him silently if I happened upon him in the hall while he was out of order.

Titus had no intention of becoming a model student, but after a few weeks, his teacher acknowledged that there was a discernible difference in his behavior.

I was, and continue to be, pleasantly surprised by the effect that chess can have on children in a school setting. After that episode with Titus, other teachers of my older chess students took notice. Their threats to suspend chess privileges improved discipline, attendance, uniform compliance, and homework.


Fast forward to five months later…….

It was an icy winter day. I had volunteered to do something at my school on a Saturday. Despite the inclement weather, I arrived with time to spare, but to my chagrin, found that the event had been cancelled. Traveling to school had been treacherous and I was not anxious to begin round two of the slippery slope. I decided to stop at a fast-food restaurant nearby to gather my nerves and perhaps have a second cup of coffee. I bought a newspaper and made my way to a booth in the back. From my booth I could see four or five older gentlemen playing chess across the room, drinking coffee and enjoying each other’s company. I settled in and became engrossed in my paper.

My subconscious was jolted by a familiar voice, a familiar laugh. Putting down the paper, I stared, transfixed. The men across the room had been joined by three boys from my chess team. One of the boys was Titus! The boys and men were all laughing, teasing each other, and playing chess! I was befuddled by the unlikely cast of characters comprising this scene; three bona fide, hard-core tough boys, behaving exceptionally in the presence of their elders; rough boys, sitting there, calmly, and comfortably engaging in conversation and playing chess with these old fellows. I was utterly flabbergasted! I thought my presence might affect the scene, so I crouched behind my paper in an effort to remain unnoticed.

Eventually, the older men rose to leave. Before leaving, one of them chided my students, “Bring more money next time. You’re always gonna lose, so you’re always gonna treat.” “Yeah,” another senior chimed in, “and be on time next week. We got other things to do ya’ know.”

Patience, tolerance, respect, acceptance….in one fell swoop! I stayed hidden behind my paper until the boys had gone, too, all the while marveling at the wonders and possibilities of chess.

About the Author

Melaniece and student at Cook Elementary

In her classroom at Cook Elementary School

Melaniece Abdur-Rahman, a veteran elementary school teacher and advocate for chess in the schools, lives in Homewood, IL with her husband of 36 years. She admits that she was an unwilling candidate when her 12 year old son recruited her as his chess “sparring partner” over 12 years ago. Since that time, she has passed her love of the game on to most of the children who have crossed her path.

She is a two-time recipient of the Oppenheimer Grant for Teachers, using the grant money to start, and then expand the first chess team at her school over ten years ago. A third grant (Chicago Foundation for Education ) allowed her to share her instructional strategy with a group of teachers in her school who agreed to learn how to play chess and make daily chess instruction a part of each day. By the end of that memorable school year, she was well on her way to realizing her dream of chesspalooza; an all inclusive community of chess players comprised of anyone remotely associated with her school, who all said “Yes to Chess.”

Melaniece was on the board of CCF and organized the foundation’s first summer chess camp for a diverse group of children from schools on the south side of Chicago. Her article contains excerpts from a manuscript she has written about her journey into the world of chess.

Learn more about other members of the Chicago Chess Foundation’s Board of Directors

Learn more about the Chicago Chess Foundation’s 2015 Summer Camps held at John W. Cook Elementary and Newton Bateman Elementary