School-aged children and their chess boards taking over a downtown Athens pizzeria isn’t too typical a sight on a Friday night. But every third Friday, young chess masters meet at Little Italy to compete with rooks and pawns against one another, and often older community members.
Over slices of pizza, the teens battle at the game board with the broader goal of learning to think before they act, said organizer Lemuel LaRoche.
LaRoche, a social worker, has long incorporated chess into his work with at-risk teens. The strategies a chess player employs on the board can translate to real life, he said. Last year, LaRoche organized the inaugural Chess and Community Conference, where students from North Georgia competed in chess and composed essays that challenged them to think about their roles in society.
Now, for the first time since 2008, LaRoche is leading a eight-member chess team up to the national Bum Rush the Board chess competition in Washington, D.C. The team competes Friday and Saturday.
LaRoche, whose 2008 team took second place in the competition, said chess teaches teens to “think before you move,” also the conference’s motto. But a group of young, low-income, black children seen engaging in a battle of strategy also challenges negative stereotypes that even the children themselves sometimes believe, he said.
“We want to show the good, the talent, in the Athens community,” LaRoche said. “We can show (young people) committing crime, or we can show them using their intelligence.”
Clarke County School District substitute teacher Broderick Flanigan, one of LaRoche’s partners, has seen students channel their energy onto the game board.
“I think it helps them slow down,” he said.
Frank Howard has “too many examples” of how he’s used chess strategy to counteract impulsive behavior.
A seven-year chess veteran, 17-year-old Howard has used chess to excel in school; he’s jointly enrolled at Clarke Central High School and Athens Technical College.
“Sometimes when I’m angry, chess helps me think of the consequences,” Howard said.
“In my opinion, chess is the ultimate metaphor for life,” said Zak Hardaway, a recent graduate of Cedar Shoals High School planning on attending Georgia State University. He calls chess a form of mediation.
“Impulsiveness is not something that can happen when you think,” Hardaway said.
LaRoche’s chess efforts caught the eye of one local businesswoman who attended the first Chess and Community Conference. Impressed with what she saw at the January 2013 conference, Patricia Wilker, owner of event planning company Eventsibles, has partnered with LaRoche to coordinate the 2014 conference. She watched in awe one recent Friday as two dozen Athenians played chess game after chess game under LaRoche and Flanigan’s watch.
“All these things we talk to young people about, they are actually doing it,” Wilker said.
Taking his chess team to Washington, D.C., isn’t cheap, explained LaRoche, who cited a lack of funding as the main reason he hadn’t taken a team since 2008. A shoestring budget, LaRoche said, is more than he has to work with. So he hopes to attract business leaders like Wilker and more community partners to build the youth chess community.
Donations to help the team pay for Bum Rush the Board, or to contribute to the 2014 Chess and Community Conference, which includes essay competitions with $1,000 scholarship prizes, can be made by visiting www.chessandcommunity.org.