My son came home from church camp a few years ago, chomping at the bit to teach me how to play this AMAZING game he learned. I was all set to hear about some kind of crazy camp game where you stick playing cards to your forehead and have to carry a balloon between your legs, relay race style. I was pleasantly surprised when he told me it was chess.
Harrison has been a gifted student for as long as he’s been in school, but one area where he struggles is in focus and thinking things through. So I was very pleased to find out he had an interest in chess. Our first game, he beat me in like six moves. I guess, chess ain’t my game. He was patient as he taught me and would raise en eyebrow and, “Ah, ah, ah,” at me when I tried to move a piece incorrectly. He’s a good teacher, but I’m still a crappy chess player.
I found out about Chess + Pizza on Facebook. I don’t remember who, but someone shared a status update from Lemeul LaRoche, most people call him Life, about chess and free pizza at Little Italy. I asked Harrison if he wanted to give it a try and he was aooga-eye-balling at me as soon as I got out, “Chess and piz—.”
Sidebar: You can get a 10 year old boy to do most anything if you bribe him with candy and/or pizza.
Harrison and I arrived, both a bit nervous about what to expect, but as soon as we made our way down the dark length of Little Italy to the slightly-glowing-green back room, we were greeted by Life and encouraged to sign in and find a partner to play with. I totally chickened out and didn’t play, but Harrison sauntered up to the rows of tables and sat down after another little boy invited him with, “Would you like to play?” and extending his right hand out for a shake. My son reached up, shook his hand gingerly, and the other boy replied, “Good luck.”
He lost that game but before he could get bent out of shape and let his spirit of competition be overridden by a poor sportsman’s attitude, the other boy extended his right hand again and cooly said, “Good game.” He got up from the table, walked over to a piece of paper on the table in the corner and put a tick mark next to his name on the looseleaf scorecard.
The people at Chess + Pizza are as varied in age as they are in ethnicity. It’s not unusual to see a child in the single digits playing against someone who is old enough to be a parent. There are people from all different kinds of economic backgrounds and representatives from CCSD schools and private schools. There is a small degree of trash talking, but all in good fun. Mostly, people are either furrowed brow, hand on their chins, contemplating their next move or smiling and laughing.
And then the pizza comes, hot pans with edges overflowing with mammoth slices of pie. Within minutes, everyone has a slice and is back at their table playing chess with one hand and trying to keep grease from dripping on their boards and pieces. Parents are floating around the room, assisting with extra napkins while Broderick Flanigan, Life’s Right Hand Man, dons the plastic gloves and passes out pieces.
Think Before You Move is the motto around here and it’s a lesson that can be applied both at the board and in real life. If you want to accomplish something, most of the time, you can’t just run a straight beeline towards your goal. You have to plot and plan and make moves that affect moves that affect moves. And each time you make a decision, you’ve got the ability to completely change the trajectory of your outcome.
From the CCC website:
Our mission is to empower at-risk youth in the areas of academic achievement, community engagement, and critical thinking using chess as a learning tool.
Our motto, Think before you Move, encourages students to evaluate their circumstances and plan steps to overcome them. We use chess as a model to enhance critical thinking skills and creative expression as an instrument for empowering youth.
The point of Chess + Pizza is to enjoy some healthy competition, sure . . . To enjoy some time with people you may not have met before . . . To improve your chess game.
But it’s bigger than that.
And it’s bigger than just a once a month gathering at Little Italy. Life holds Open Chess Play on Mondays from 4:00-5:30 at the Library.
And it’s bigger than just kids getting together to play Ches . . . There’s an entire conference geared to encouraging a wider spectrum of young people to think before they move. The Chess & Community Conference was established in 2013 as a day-long event that boasts a large scale chess tournament, scholarship awards and inspiring local and regional speakers. The next Chess & Community Conference is January 10th and the keynote speaker is Fenwick Broyard, Executive Director at the Community Connection of Northeast Georgia.
I know, just in our family, Harrison’s involvement in the programs built by Life have had a direct impact on the trajectory of his life. He’s more confident, values his thinking skills, has made friends, improved his chess game and has a sense of his own community separate from school and our neighborhood. Anytime Harrison moves before he thinks, we use chess as a metaphor and he instantly makes a connection with the value of thinking before moving . . . Thinking before speaking.
I believe in what Life is doing . . . For me, it’s more than just supporting a community program. I really do believe that, if Life doesn’t succeed in changing the world, he will — he is — succeeding in changing Athens.
Photos by Mercedes Bleth