Chess in Franklin County, Mississippi

Chess in Franklin County: The Journey Begins
By Randy Youngblood
Source: Franklin Advocate, Meadville, Mississippi, September 24, 2015

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” When that step is made by the size 14 shoes of the 6’6” Dr. Jeff Bulington, what a grand step it is!  Over the past six weeks, Dr. Bulington’s initial step has introduced the “mind sport” of chess to the students of Franklin County in such an animated way that our young people are begging to be part of Dr. B’s class.  How can these students be so excited by a game known to so few six weeks ago?  Why and how does Franklin County in rural Mississippi have a chess coach known world-wide for his teams’ successes?  With these questions, let the journey begin.

Dr. B’s love for the game of chess combined with his desire that all children excel in learning and thinking are the motivation beneath his teaching of young people. His connection to Franklin County comes through a Friend of the county who is committed to supporting excellence and opportunity for our children. When Dr. B visited the community last October, he found students with enormous untapped potential.  Likewise, he discovered school leadership who are open to exploring this age old game and teaching tool in a new way in our schools. And the journey continues.

Now, just weeks into the school year, Dr. B’s classroom buzzes each hour of the day with new twists on learning…through chess.  Whether five year olds who are just getting used to their ABC’s or sixth grade students searching for a place to fit, all eyes are upon Dr. B as his approach to chess weaves together geography, history, mathematics, reading, sociology, and so much more.  With each step, Dr. B’s confidence in his choice to come to Franklin County grows as the potential of our young people is increasingly evident.

On September 16, Frank Niro found himself drawn to Meadville and Bude by stories of chess in Franklin County.  Mr. Niro serves as chairman of research for the World Chess Federation, is the managing editor of the only international scholarly journal devoted to chess across all academic disciplines (Journal of Chess Research), and is the former executive director of the U.S. Chess Federation.  Mr. Niro travelled from Kentucky to witness the first steps of this journey personally.  When asked why he had such an interest in our short-lived chess program, this is what he said:

“It’s who I am.  As a young man who was confined to a wheelchair after a sever accident, I learned chess.  In my own personal recovery and growth, I credit chess.  In retirement, chess is my cause. Through FIDE (World Chess Federation) I seek to understand, through research, the impact of chess on lives and communities.  I know the work of Jeff Bulington, and as a fan of chess, selfishly, I wanted to come and see what a noted coach as Jeff is doing with chess in Franklin County, Mississippi.”

As he alluded, Mr. Niro’s life has been one with times of great loss infused by quite unexpected gain.  As a young man, he rose to record breaking success in marathons and would potentially be a contender for the Olympics in 1968 and/or 1972. However, these hopes were dashed by a drunk driver in December of 1967 as Frank was preparing for the 1968 Boston Marathon.  While spending over two years in the hospital, Frank arrived at this conviction: “I had a choice.  I could continue to feel sorry about my situation and let the world pass me by, or I could do what I did, which was to get on with my life and play the hand I was dealt.”

A trump card of that hand is the game of chess which was introduced by a friend while Frank went through extensive therapy in the hospital.  Out of the tragedy, Frank values the game that became his pain reliever, his mental health therapist, and that which he holds up today as the “great equalizer” in education.  His promotion of chess in schools continues to be driven by the truth that skills gained through chess are not defined by ability, race, poverty, disability, gender or any other situation of life.  All students are equally afforded opportunity when exposed to this “mind sport.”

Mr. Niro quickly rattles off statistics showing that chess is played in more countries than any other sport.  Yet in the United States, the board game is not considered a “real” sport.  With a twinkle in his eye, he turned his head to say “fortunately this is not the case in Franklin County.”

Mr. Niro is pleasantly surprised by the energy and love for the game already sprouting within our students and the community. With such a beginning, he believes the skills and stories of success are sure to come.  Mr. Niro confirms that he will continue to watch the goings-on here as will his associates in the chess world. Among those colleagues is International Grandmaster Susan Polgar, former Women’s World Chess Champion and founder of the Susan Polgar Foundation, on which Mr. Niro serves as a board member. Susan, Frank and others are watching to see what will come of the first ever journey to create a school-centered chess culture in a rural community in the United States.

Indeed, the eyes of the chess world are on this journey because of the desire to see chess become a part of schools nationwide, as chess is about so much more than a game.  Rather, it is a means of enriching education and fulfilling the lives of all students as they continue this journey where steps become yards, yards become miles, and miles become an adventure toward the “untapped potential” within.

Article provided courtesy of the Franklin Advocate and the author.


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