A Smart Move for Berkeley Chess

School teaches critical thinking and helps bridge the gap.

Few board games have the international staying power of chess. Folks
play it on the beach in Hawaii. Sailors in Bali play shuffle pawns on
their boats while their tourist clientele go snorkeling. Chess
Olympiads feature more countries than just about any other sport
(soccer might be the one exception). But the greater United States
hasn’t quite caught on, said Berkeley Chess School founder Elizabeth
Shaughnessy. Chess enjoyed brief popularity during the Bobby Fisher
era, but was later supplanted by other pastimes. It’s gotten a bit of
hipster cachet in recent years, with the rise of Adisa Banjoko’s
Hip-Hop Chess Federation and advocacy from Wu-Tang rapper the Rza.
Still, chess aficionados bemoan Americans’ general lack of enthusiasm
for the sport. We’re not partial to games that require heavy
concentration, Shaughnessy explained.

Nonetheless, Shaughnessy persistently touts the values of chess, and
has worked for decades to promote it in the Bay Area. Born into an
Irish chess-playing family, she learned the game at age four and grew
up practicing with her father and brother. She began to play
competitively in college and ultimately joined the Irish Women’s team,
of which she’s still a member. She launched Berkeley Chess
School
in 1982, twelve years after immigrating to Berkeley. Two of
her children attended Oxford Elementary School at the time, and she
volunteered to teach after-school chess lessons at the principal’s
behest. She came up with the idea on a lark, not anticipating the 72
students who would show up on the first day, or the parents who would
buttonhole her in the coming months. Pretty soon, Shaughnessy had to
recruit people from local chess clubs to help teach. She began charging
a small fee for those who could afford to pay, initially to compensate
her own staff, and later to cover the cost of bringing the program into
inner-city schools. She didn’t receive any remuneration for the first
nine years of Berkeley Chess School’s existence.

Today, Berkeley Chess School serves about 5,000 kids throughout the
Bay Area. It holds eight regional chess tournaments (two exclusively
for girls), offers an international exchange program with an Irish
school, and provides regular tutorials in more than 150 schools. It has
produced one nineteen-year-old grand master and a couple of
international masters, and helped many regular kids learn strategy,
critical thinking, and how to be a good loser. (It isn’t like Bridge
where you can shift blame to your partner, Shaughnessy said.) Moreover,
it’s improved students’ test scores, said Shaughnessy, who, like most
educators, is highly perturbed by the achievement gap in public
schools. “We’re always looking for ways to bridge the gap,” Shaughnessy
said. “I think this is a way.”

Berkeley Chess School holds its Oakland chess program
tournament
this Thurs., May 21 at Maxwell Park Elementary
School
(4730 Fleming Ave., Oakland), with 200 third and fourth
graders from East Oakland. 9-11 a.m., free. BerkeleyChessSchool.org

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