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Baltimore Kids’ Chess League will send three area high schools to nationals in Memphis following pandemic rut

Shawn Means still remembers his first chess game back in person. The senior at Bard High School Early College Baltimore sat across from his teammate Aavo McClafferty earlier this year after numerous missed opportunities due to the coronavirus pandemic. Before COVID, the pair would play regularly at school.

Despite losing to his counterpart during the reunion game, Means said, the moment remains bittersweet.

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The opportunity to regularly play chess over-the-board has been a signal of normalcy for these students. Rather than dragging a cursor across a screen to move a digital chess piece, Means now relishes feeling the smooth plastic piece in his hand and hearing it click against the board. He enjoys watching his opponents’ tells — some bounce their legs, others scratch their chins — as they ponder their next moves.

“It’s really way different than a computer. I can’t explain it,” Means said. “Touching the pieces, to me, it’s just so important. It helps me play better.”

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Now, Means, along with six of his peers, will get to take their beloved in-person chess games to the 2022 National High School (K-12) Championships, taking place Friday through Sunday in Memphis, Tennessee. The entire trip is paid for by grant funding secured by the Baltimore Kids’ Chess League, a nonprofit that works with Baltimore City to provide scholastic chess opportunities.

The chess league has not sent a team to nationals since before the pandemic. Teams that attended in the past were awarded “high honors,” and the league had its first individual U.S. Chess Federation national champion in 2017 with Cahree Myrick, 12, then a seventh grader at Roland Park Elementary and Middle School.

Means isn’t the only one exhilarated by the thought of competing in Memphis in April. Two fellow Title I schools — Green Street Academy and Patterson High School — also accepted the same offer to bring seven of their student chess players to the national competition.

Title I schools contain high percentages of poor and disadvantaged students. As a result, these schools receive federal financial assistance and are eligible for other areas of grant funding, such as the money that the chess league executive director, Christina Heffner, acquired for these three schools.

For several students, this will be their first time boarding a plane and visiting a new part of the country. Bard, Green Street and Patterson are located, respectively, in the neighborhoods of Coppin Heights, Gwynns Falls and Hopkins Bayview.

When school first moved online and the world shut down due to the pandemic, Means found he lost his motivation to play chess, especially after a few family members contracted the virus.

He had the opportunity to continue playing chess online, but it wasn’t the same. Sean Kennedy, his coach, didn’t push the online game to avoid giving students even more screen time.

Coming back to the classroom for the 2021-22 school year, Kennedy wasn’t sure about restarting the chess club until Means and McClafferty began showing up every day asking to play.

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Veronica Hopkins, the chess coach at Green Street Academy, said she noticed many students experiencing feelings of grief, apathy and anxiety as the pandemic progressed. Similar to Means, she has seen apathetic kids become energized with the return of in-person chess team activities. Hopkins said she’s watched the game instill camaraderie and competition in her students.

Chess also has helped students cope with tough emotions. Hopkins said when there is an argument, students often decide to settle the dispute with a round of chess.

Green Street Academy student Aliyonne Harris said chess helped her manage her anger and approach situations more calmly.

When there are difficult conversations or students cannot easily find the words to say, Hopkins said they turn to the chessboard.

“Sometimes things are easier to talk about when you don’t have to look someone in the eyes,” Hopkins said. “You can have a long wait time because you can pretend that you’re thinking about what piece to move if you’re thinking about what to say.”

At all three schools, the coaches said chess has helped ameliorate behavioral issues in the classroom.

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After years of online schooling, Chris Baron, the chess coach at Patterson High School, said, “people forgot how to school.”

With chess, coaches and students alike said the game has helped them to become more patient. They have learned how to lose — and win — gracefully. In both chess and life, students have learned to think ahead about the consequences of their actions.

“Chess is so good for so many aspects of learning,” said Baron, who sometimes teaches AP psychology. “Young adults, high school students are really working on that prefrontal cortex and being able to think through consequences of actions. Having to really think about that and getting that mind frame of ‘What will happen if — ?’ it is, I think, something that becomes very useful for them.”

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Baron said he admires the game of chess because of how it allows students to figure out how they learn best. There’s no one way to master the game. Some learn by playing, others by taking notes or reading books.

It’s a stark contrast from the classroom, where students are “often directed in learning in very particular ways,” Baron said.

At the upcoming competition, some students are looking to take home the gold.

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Javier Gomez at Green Street Academy practices three times a week for six hours a day in addition to team practices. If he wins the competition, it’ll open the door for him to compete in other tournaments.

DeShown Streater, Patterson High School senior, said he wants to win the competition to create a legacy at his school before he graduates.

Most students, however, said their goal is not to win, but to enjoy the experience they will get to share with their friends. They want to play the game, get better, meet new people and make memories in Memphis.

“I’m really excited for it just to hang out with my friends,” Means said. “Win or lose in a chess match, I’m always winning because I’m hanging out and playing chess.”


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