School Chess Games in Harlem
Joan Baum, Ph.D.
chess absorbing them after school at the Harlem Educational Activities
Fund (HEAF) center on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, but behind
the plotting of moves on an eight by eight is a rehearsal of general
strategies of success for youngsters, primarily African-American
and Dominican, from Harlem and Washington Heights. Through the
HEAF chess programs these young people are taught that every act
has consequences; that while minor errors might be overcome, some
actions cannot be taken back; that learning involves pattern recognition,
evaluating alternatives, considering short and long-range goals.
Beyond that, they are exhorted to exercise a will to succeed,
extend courtesy to others, value teammates, be respectful of opponents.
“Chess is not the end but the means” is the mantra at HEAF, though
no doubt when the kids hear it from none other than Maurice Ashley,
the first Black International Chess Grandmaster who directs HEAF’s
chess initiatives at the Center and at Mott Hall at IS 223 in
District 6 (where chess is part of the curriculum), they know
this game’s for real, “a metaphor for life.” In the words of Daniel
Rose, the indefatigable and passionately dedicated president of
the Harlem Education Activities Fund, you can’t get a better role
model than Maurice Ashley.
Certainly, the affable, energetic, supremely articulate 35 year-old
Brooklyn Tech graduate who went on to City College to study creative
writing radiates a cool that comes from more than winning chess
games. His confidence comes from being not only accomplished but
happy. He truly enjoys what he does as chess director and wears
his sense of mission with grace as well as enthusiasm. He lingers
unobtrusively in a doorway, watching one of the teachers lead
a class of boys and girls, a mix of grades four to eight. Black
bishop’s contemplating a move. Looks good, but down the line,
could be threatening. How far down the line, how might a short-range
advantage be a long-term mistake? What kinds of questions need
to be asked, how imaginatively can the problem be framed? Almost
unwittingly, he leans into the classroom, pleased with the analysis
but wanting to hear more. “C’mon,” he challenges one rapt nine-year
old, chin in hands, who seems mesmerized by the play, “what else
can happen?” She tells him. He beams.
Earlier, Ashley recalled the start of his own love affair with
chess, a game he started playing casually in a local library but
then felt the pull of the “mystery” of the game, the sense of
its appeal to the imagination as well as its reliance on the protocol
of play. He recalls a competition HEAF kids faced not too long
ago with a team whose members had memorized opening gambits. As
play began, HEAF was not doing well against its well rehearsed
opponents, but Ashley had faith in the larger game plan, considerations
of the big picture and long-range strategies he’d been pushing.
And sure enough, by midgame HEAF was ascendant. The Dark Knights
have since gone on to win city, state, and national competitions
against public and private schools.
At HEAF, incidentally, girls constitute approximately 50 percent
of the after school chess classes. If the programs can sow good
seeds, it is likely that the girls will continue to value intellectual
achievement when they get into high school, but like so many,
particularly those from broken homes, families where learning
is not a tradition, and cultures that tend to undervalue the potential
of women, girls can easily succumb to stereotype. As Rose, Welsh
and Ashley reiterate, the Center is committed to turn out not
so much good chess players as good students throughout high school
who will be motivated to go on to college, even to graduate and
professional school. It is significant that in the HEAF Annual
Report the chess program is described in a section headed “Laying
the Groundwork for College.”
Dan Rose takes a visitor by the arm and commandeers a tour of
the Center, pointing out inspirational sayings in the halls that
he has personally selected for blowing up and framing. One wall
is lined with tributes to the HEAF kids who have made it—a whopping
success story that validates the Harlem Education Activities Fund
mission statement to develop and sustain “attitudes and skills”
in disadvantaged youngsters that will “enable them to lead satisfying
and productive lives in mainstream American life.” “So much of
life is psychological,” says Rose, but these children are capable
in “both subtle and unsubtle ways” of changing their views of
themselves. HEAF also invests in its young participants in ways
that have in fiscal as well as educational payoff. As Rose notes,
HEAF graduates are all gifted with three shares of stock—IBM,
AT&T and Disney.
Among programs that resemble one another, HEAF stands out. As
Courtney Welsh, HEAF’s executive director points out, the HEAF
success story of the last 10 years is due to an unprecedented
amount of screening and close monitoring that concentrates on
close involvement of parents in all HEAF efforts. And to an unusually
active, professional top staff, who are smart as well as sensitive.
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