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Chess helps Ferguson students cope with lingering trauma

Chess grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez, left, plays a match with 10-year-old Marion Rodgers of the Ferguson-Florissant School District while 9-year-old Dorielle Guy-Bey, right, watches. Associated Press/Photo by Jim Salter

Chess helps Ferguson students cope with lingering trauma

Nick Ragone, a marketing professional from St. Louis, Mo., is an active chess player. So is his 11-year-old son, Frankie, who plays in an after-school club. One day, Frankie looked up at his father quizzically and asked: “Hey, do all the schools around here have after-school chess?”

Ragone had no idea, but his son’s question stuck with him. The next day, he contacted St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center and discovered the clubs were something of a rarity. In fact, in the nearby town of Ferguson, 20 middle and elementary schools wanted to establish after-school programs but couldn’t due to a lack of funding and mentors.

Determined to make their dream a reality, Ragone forged a partnership between Ascension, his employer, and St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center to create and fund Your Move Chess, in Ferguson schools.

On Tuesday, 11 students from Grove Elementary celebrated the last tournament of the program’s first year.

Ragone said the most impactful part of the program has been the mentorship students get from chess grandmasters, the highest-ranking chess players in the world, including grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez.

Staring intently at the chess board, 10-year-old Tyson Stegall waited for Ramirez to complete a move. His wait was soon over.

“He trapped me,” Tyson said after a checkmate finished off his game.

Tyson is among 450 elementary and middle-school students in Ferguson learning the strategy game through Your Move Chess. The goal is to help students troubled by the turmoil following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teen fatally shot on Aug. 8, 2014, by white police officer Darren Wilson. Civil unrest, including the looting and burning of businesses, erupted after a grand jury declined to bring charges against Wilson.

Third-grade teacher Wyntra Storms said the violence was difficult for her kids. Many children still tear up when the topic comes up, Storms said, but she can see the chess club helping them regain confidence.

Early evidence from the after-school chess program indicates she’s right. In a survey of participants, 92 percent said it has made them more confident in the ability to learn difficult material; 85 percent said they look forward to school more on days when they have chess club; and 94 percent said chess has taught them they can complete difficult tasks with enough effort.

“They are learning to focus,” Storms said. “A lot of them, when we first mentioned chess, said, ‘I can’t do that. I’m not smart enough.’ They found out they could do it, and it really excites them.”

Helping children through games like chess is not new. Therapists have been playing games with young clients since 1919. Persian physician Rhazes, chief physician of the Baghdad hospital, played shatranj, the precursor to chess, and used it as a metaphor for real life when he counseled patients in the late ninth and early 10th centuries.

Going forward, Ragone is looking for ways to expand the program. In February, Ascension hosted a fundraising event for Your Move Chess and raised about $50,000. Next year, one elementary school in Ferguson will have chess as part of its curriculum. Ragone also hopes to expand from 20 schools to 30 or 35 in the coming years.

“The greatest challenge is just expanding it fast enough. We have a lot of schools that want to come into it,” Ragone said. “They see the results.”

The Associates Press contributed to this report.

Aliya Kuykendall Aliya is a World Journalism Institute graduate.


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