Shawn Means personally remembers his first game of chess. The senior at Bard High School Early College Baltimore sat across from teammate Aavo McClafferty earlier this year after missing numerous opportunities due to the coronavirus pandemic. Before COVID, the couple played regularly at school.
Despite losing to his opposite number during the reunion game, Means said the moment remains bittersweet.
Being able to play chess across the board regularly was a signal of normalcy for these students. Instead of dragging a cursor across a screen to move a digital chess piece, Means now enjoys feeling the smooth plastic piece in his hand and hearing it click against the board. He enjoys watching his opponents’ tells—some hop their legs, others scratch their chins—as they contemplate their next moves.
“It’s really very different from a computer. I can’t explain it,” Means said. “It’s just so important to me to touch the pieces. It helps me play better.”
Now Means, along with six of his colleagues, can take their beloved personal chess games to the 2022 National High School (K-12) Championships, taking place Friday through Sunday in Memphis, Tennessee. The entire trip is funded by grants secured by the Baltimore Kids’ Chess League, a non-profit organization that partners with Baltimore City to provide scholastic chess opportunities.
The chess league has not sent a team to the national teams since before the pandemic. Teams that have competed in the past have been awarded “high honors,” and the league had its first US Chess Federation national singles champion in 2017 in Cahree Myrick, 12, then a seventh grader at Roland Park Elementary and Middle School.
Means isn’t the only one excited about the idea of competing in Memphis in April. Two other Title I schools – Green Street Academy and Patterson High School – also accepted the same offer to take seven of their student chess players to the national competition.
Title I schools have a high percentage of poor and disadvantaged students. As a result, these schools receive federal financial aid and are eligible for other areas of grant funding, such as the money that Chess League executive director Christina Heffner raised for these three schools.
For several students, this will be their first time boarding a plane and visiting a new part of the country. Bard, Green Street and Patterson are located in the Coppin Heights, Gwynns Falls and Hopkins Bayview neighborhoods respectively.
When school first went online and the world shut down due to the pandemic, Means found he lost his motivation to play chess, especially after some family members contracted the virus.
He had the opportunity to continue playing chess online, but it wasn’t the same. Sean Kennedy, his coach, didn’t push online play to avoid giving students even more screen time.
When Kennedy returned to the classroom for the 2021-22 school year, he wasn’t sure about restarting the chess club until Means and McClafferty showed up each day asking to be allowed to play.
Veronica Hopkins, the chess coach at Green Street Academy, said she noticed many students felt feelings of sadness, apathy and fear as the pandemic progressed. Much like Means, she has seen apathetic children become energized by the return of personal chess team activities. Hopkins said she observed how the game instilled camaraderie and competition in her students.
Chess has also helped students deal with strong emotions. Hopkins said that when a dispute arises, students often choose to resolve the dispute with a round of chess.
Green Street Academy student Aliyonne Harris said chess helped her manage her anger and approach situations more calmly.
According to Hopkins, when there are difficult conversations or the students can’t find the right words, they turn to the chessboard.
“Sometimes it’s easier to talk about things when you don’t have to look someone in the eye,” Hopkins said. “You can wait a long time because you can pretend to be thinking about which piece to draw when you’re thinking about what to say.”
At all three schools, coaches said chess helped improve behavior problems in the classroom.
After years of teaching online, Chris Baron, the chess coach at Patterson High School, said, “People have forgotten how to go to school.”
In chess, coaches and students alike said the game helped them become more patient. You’ve learned how to lose gracefully – and win. In both chess and life, students have learned to think ahead about the consequences of their actions.
“Chess is so good for so many aspects of learning,” said Baron, who sometimes teaches AP psychology. “Young adults and high school students really work on this prefrontal cortex and are able to reason through the consequences of actions. You really have to think about it and think, ‘What’s going to happen if -?’ it is, I think, something that will become very useful for them.”
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Baron said he admires chess because it allows students to discover how they learn best. There is no way to master the game. Some learn by playing, others by taking notes or reading books.
It’s a stark contrast to the classroom, where students “are often guided to learn in very specific ways,” Baron said.
At the upcoming competition, some students want to take home gold.
Javier Gomez at Green Street Academy trains six hours a day three times a week in addition to team practice. Winning the competition will open the door for him to enter other tournaments.
Patterson High School senior DeShown Streater said he wants to win the competition to create a legacy at his school before he graduates.
However, most of the students said their goal is not to win, but to enjoy the experience, which they could share with their friends. They want to play the game, get better, meet new people, and make memories in Memphis.
“I’m really looking forward to just hanging out with my friends,” Means said. “Win or lose in a chess match, I always win because I hang out and play chess.”