Smart move: Ascension backs school chess programs in Ferguson

November 15, 2015

Game of skill and strategy strengthens students' problem-solving skills


FERGUSON, Mo. — Even the youngest residents of this suburban St. Louis community have become accustomed to the overwhelming media attention focused here since the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014. Brown's death sparked protests around the nation with calls for equitable police response for all people, regardless of race, and renewed focus to eliminate racial disparities.

Maurice Ashley, bottom right, the only African-American chess grand master in the world, greets a Walnut Grove Elementary student at a Sept. 15 event to announce the launch of after-school chess programs in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in suburban St. Louis. School district superintendent Joseph Davis, top left, engages a young challenger in a game. St. Louis-based Ascension is sponsoring the enrichment programs at 20 schools.

But on Sept. 15 at Walnut Grove Elementary School, both students and reporters were focused on a much different topic — the announcement of after-school chess clubs for a lucky 350 kids attending the Ferguson-Florissant School District's 17 grade schools and three middle schools. And to stir up enthusiasm for the game, three chess rock stars — grand masters Alejandro Ramirez, Yasser Seirawan and the only African-American grand master in the world, Maurice Ashley — were on hand to challenge the third- through sixth-graders assembled in the library there to try their hands at the game.

Leila Brown, 9, was one of the first to take on Ashley. "He beat me in two minutes, and the only piece he moved was his queen," she said.

Undaunted, Leila said she began playing at 7 with her father, and was excited about the opportunity to learn more about the game. "I want to be a grand master too, so I can go around the world teaching other people to play," she said.

That kind of positive attitude is exactly what Nick Ragone, chief communications and marketing officer at Ascension, and Tony Rich, executive director of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, want to nurture. Their organizations are corporate partners in the new program. Chess, they say, is not only a challenging game, but one that encourages the kind of thinking that empowers players and strengthens their problem-solving skills.

Students of Walnut Grove Elementary in Ferguson, Mo., hear about the chess club program from Maurice Ashley, one of the best players in the world. Next to Ashley, from left to right, are Tony Rich, executive director of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, and Joseph Davis, superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant School District.

Ragone says the idea for the program came from his own 10-year-old son, an avid chess player who recently asked him if all schools, like his, taught kids how to play the game.

"That's when the light bulb went off," says Ragone, who admits he is a "budding chess nerd" himself.

Opening move
"Ascension President and CEO Anthony Tersigni had recently challenged us to ramp up community engagement here in St. Louis, our headquarters, where we have 1,200 employees. As the largest nonprofit health system in the United States and the world's largest Catholic health system, we are committed to caring for all people — especially those who are struggling the most," says Ragone.

"I immediately thought of Ferguson, which has had such a difficult year, and wondered if after-school chess clubs might be a good way to bring needed community resources to the students there," he adds.

Ragone contacted Rich, whose organization runs approximately 100 area school chess programs, providing scholastic instructors, chess sets, demonstration boards and curriculum for students from kindergarten age through senior high school. As luck would have it, Rich told him that Joseph Davis, superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant School District, had been making inquiries of his own about a pilot chess program there, though funding for it was a major stumbling block.

"It was kismet," says Ragone. Before long Ascension had agreed to underwrite the first semester of the program — at a cost of about $22,000 — with the intention of expanding its support throughout the region.

"This is not a short-term commitment; Ferguson is just our starting point," says Ragone. "We think chess has the curative power to inspire kids to be more engaged as students."

Winning strategy
Grand master Ashley completely concurs with that. "Chess can be a key developmental tool for children," he says. "It is a critical thinking game where you have to react to ever-shifting data, making moves in response to your opponent's moves. It teaches kids everything from patience, discipline and strategy to how to take responsibility for their actions and how to face the consequences of bad decisions."

Along the way, research also shows that chess playing strengthens spatial relations and geometry skills—exactly what is needed to excel in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) that can make students competitive in today's global economy.

Pound for pound, Ashley says, there's nothing that can beat chess at changing young lives. "Compared to music or athletic programs, chess is an extremely inexpensive activity that marries extremely well with what teachers are trying to teach in schools," he says. "The only real monetary outlay is for competitive coaches — and in this case, Ascension is providing those funds."

Whiz kid
Ashley, 49, says he is a prime example of the profound power chess can play in a child's world. He grew up in poverty in Jamaica, arriving in New York City at age 12 to reunite with a mother he barely knew. The first time he witnessed a chess game was when he entered Brooklyn Technical High School. Fascinated, he began reading every book he could find about chess, playing incessantly and entering tournaments whenever he could.

In the late 1980s, he began teaching the game through the American Chess Foundation to kids in Harlem. "At first it was just a good side income while I was going to college," Ashley says. But when two groups he coached — the Raging Rooks and the Dark Knights — both won national championships, he says he saw "the magic of chess to break down cultural barriers," and went on to establish the Harlem Chess Center.

By 1999, he had become a grand master, and has since gone on to become an internationally known chess commentator as well as a motivational speaker, author, app designer, puzzle inventor, and currently a director's fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

Chess swag
The game of chess — invented 1,500 years ago in India — is having a 21st century Hollywood "moment," says Ashley, first with the 2012 release of the documentary "Brooklyn Castle," about inner-city, chess-playing whiz kids, now with the recently-released film "Pawn Sacrifice," starring Tobey Maguire as American chess legend Bobby Fischer, and next year with the much anticipated movie, "The Queen of Katwe," starring Lupita Nyong'o as a young Ugandan girl training to become a world chess champion.

And that, he says, is changing school culture. "Chess isn't just for geeks anymore," he says. "It's exploding in popularity. It's a cool scene; it's about winning, with a whole different swag," he says.

Besides, he says, chess is a blast for kids. "They love the tactileness of the pieces and the competitiveness of the game," says Ashley. "It's not just an intellectual pursuit."

"Chess makes you smart, but it's also fun, like mom hiding the veggies in the ice cream," agrees Rich, of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. "It's a great interventional tool for disadvantaged kids without access to lots of enrichment activities."

That's what's so significant about Ascension's sponsorship of this program, he adds. "We are learning that extracurricular activities are not extra," he says. "They teach the whole child — and they can change the trajectory of a child's life."


Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.