Young mental athletes prove chessboard skill at two SE Portland schools

Find out why officials say the game of chess helps disadvantaged youth to enter life on a level playing field …

These young chess-masters don’t wiggle or squirm while their game is in play – they appear to be completely focused on the chess board.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
In the gymnasium at Duniway Elementary School, 80 kids sit at tables and play games on a Saturday morning. But this cavernous room isn’t ringing with playful outbursts or giggles; there is no whirl of youthful exuberance.

Instead, forty pairs of young people are sitting across from one another at tables on March 1, nearly motionless, gazing at a chess board.

Just outside the gym’s doorway, Julie Young, executive director for “Chess for Success”, whispers to us in the hushed tones of a TV golfing commentator, “We’re holding our regional tournaments today.”

In the hallway, Young explains this event is one of 25 regional tournaments being put on by their organization. “Kids are competing for titles within their age category. The winners will go on to the final playoffs.”

“Chess for Success” officials Ed McVicker – assistant tournament director and program director – Christopher Maguire, and executive director Julie Young track statistics and keep time during the tournament at Duniway Elementary School.

Four decades of chess
“Chess for Success” was formed in 1992 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to setting up chess clubs in low-income Portland schools, Young tells us. It now support chess clubs in 73 Title I schools.

“This tournament has a 41-year history,” says Young. “It started at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). By 1998, it grew until it became too large for a volunteer organization to run. ‘Chess for Success’ began to provide the logistics and administrative support, but the tournaments are still staffed by many of those volunteers who started the event.”

The players of the next game quietly listen to instructions from the tournament officials.

Lessons in personal responsibility
On the grade school level, Young continues, volunteers and staff of “Chess for Success” teach more than just how move figurines around on a checked board.

“These chess clubs are important, because it brings together children from all different backgrounds to play with one another. Beyond that, when children learn how to play chess, they learn how to sit still, concentrate, and think ahead.”

And, kids also learn personal responsibility, adds Young. “They get the credit for their successes. And, they can’t blame their losses on their family’s situation – or even on what they had for breakfast. The ‘field is level’ for every child. Winning at chess doesn’t take any special physical or mental skill – it takes concentration, and a will to succeed.”

This young lady is focused only on her next move.

Chess breeds success
Their program goes far beyond developing young chess mavens, Young continues. “As soon as a child joins the chess club, other students – and even some teachers – often think, ‘my gosh, they’re brilliant’. It really increases their self-esteem when they get good at playing chess.

“Whether they achieve mastery of chess or not, kids who learn to play tend to do better in school. As they improve at the game, many of them start taking their studies more seriously.

“We’re not really interested in making chess masters in our after-school program. Our goal is to teach children skills that will carry forward in life.”

At the Franciscan Montessori Earth School, just off outer SE Division Street in the Centennial neighborhood, players from the eastern region are concentrating on their tournament.

Outer East Portland tournament
Indeed, this chess tournament really is spread across the city. Later that morning, we visit another sponsored tournament, this one at the Franciscan Montessori Earth School.

“We have 52 kids playing today, says Melissa Light, development and communications director for the organization. “We have 12 schools represented at this tournament.”

In schools supported, Chess for Success is open to all children in the school, without cost. “Fortunately, we have strong support from parents, teachers, public school districts, and the community.”

You can learn more by going online to and visiting www.chessforsuccess.org.

In outer East Portland, Melissa Light, development and communications director at “Chess for Success”, helps officiate other players in the early March tournament.

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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