Walk into the cafeteria at William James Christian Middle School in South Roebuck on any afternoon, and what you find might surprise you — students playing chess. Lined up across two tables, students compete with each other for one hour each afternoon. Taught by former Washington, D.C. chess champion Charles Smith, this W.J. Christian chess class is a Birmingham rarity.
Charles Smith taught himself how to play chess after watching his brother play in Brooklyn, New York. Exposure to more advanced chess players in Washington, D.C. pushed him to further develop his skills. He became Washington, D.C. Amateur and Thirty Minute Chess Champion and gradually earned his way to the level of Expert. He relocated to Birmingham in 1998.
After living in chess meccas like New York and D.C., Smith wanted to bring the appreciation of chess to his new home in Alabama, a place that was virtually, in his words, a “chess city desert.”
“I missed chess so much,” Smith explained. “Being a chess player, I looked long term and thought maybe in two years these young kids that I’m teaching will start to play in tournaments and will make chess happen in Birmingham. So I started the program just to make chess popular and try to start a chess community in Birmingham.”
W.J. Christian offers chess as an elective, but the course is certainly not a relaxed and free environment. Smith demands concentration and discipline in his class. “Most people bring me children not for chess but for discipline. Their children will be better disciplined in the way they think by learning chess,” he said.
During class, Smith keeps a watchful eye on all of his students. He circles the tables, commenting on each game, while maintaining order and respect in his class. “I coach chess like a football coach,” Smith admitted, “because I’m standing over them and watching them. It’s an involved teaching process that’s all about discipline.”
Smith created his own methods for his classes. Part of his success is drawing in students to the game who may have had no affinity for it at first. “When I first started teaching, nobody knew about chess so there was no interest in chess at all,” Smith said. “Somehow, I’m able to gain the students’ interest in the game. I manage to get through because I love the game and I pass on the love to them.”
One of the initial methods Smith uses is “the matrix,” which he describes as “a movement of the pieces for a four-move checkmate. It presents certain problems on both sides that allow the students to learn fast. That’s the way chess occurred to me when I learned as a child. It’s a way to play the pieces that no one taught me.”
Smith realizes chess is more than the simple act of achieving checkmate. Through chess, Smith hopes to prepare his students for the future. “College professors are very frustrated because the students can do the work but wonder if they can think on their feet,” Smith said. “That’s what chess is doing; it’s teaching them to think outside the box to figure out the best options.”
According to Smith, chess improves math and reading skills along with self-confidence and concentration. “One thing this country needs is engineers and mathematicians and scientists. Secondly, we need people that can think outside the box,” Smith explained. “Chess requires you to think about the consequences of your moves and deal with the results of your bad or good decisions, just like in life. Chess will make better citizens for Birmingham and the country.”
Full article here.
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