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New York City
December 2001

After School Chess Games in Harlem
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

That’s 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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