Standing on the opposite sides of a life-sized chess board, Maurice Campbell, 10 and Jhiana Evans, 11, fifth-graders at P.S. 36 in Harlem, rattled off commands that sent their classmates scurrying to white or black squares.
“Knight to F3,” said Campbell who was wearing a white shirt with the letter K for king.
“Pawn takes E5,” said Evans, wearing a white t-shirt with Q for queen.
Both had only a rudimentary understanding of the game before participating in Chess Lords, a human interactive chess program where kids learn by acting as pieces on a chess board.
But since joining the team, founded by Anthonyquiame Jackson-Bey, the students have improved their critical thinking skills, discipline and mathematical understanding — in addition to a host of other benefits.
Many of the kids at P.S. 36 are from the nearby Manhattanville and Grant Houses where a long-time rivalry has occasionally turned deadly. On September 11, 2011, Murry Bergtraum High School senior basketball star Tyshana “Chicken” Murphy was gunned down over what police think was a feud between the two public housing complexes.
By starting with kids in the second grade, Jackson-Bey, 33, hopes to nip any notion of a rivalry in the bud.
“This shows they can work together, that there is so much more than their feuds,” said Jackson-Bey who grew up in Grant Houses and is an alumni of P.S. 36. “There’s more than limiting yourself to the corner or the block.”
The chess program started in October when Jackson-Bey, who was an assistant teacher at another after-school program, told his aunt Shereen Jackson, P.S. 36’s vice parent teacher association president about the educational programs he was developing in order to branch out on his own with his company, the non-profit Bey Foundation.
“It’s a way to bring the two developments back together,” said Jackson. “We’ve had issues but never to the extent to the passing of a child. We said we have to do something.”
When the school had difficulty getting funding together, Jackson-Bey offered to do the after school program for free.
The program started out with fourth and fifth graders and was so well-liked that they expanded it to second and third graders with the older kids serving as mentors.
The chess lessons have already started to translate into life lessons.
“It helps me in school. If I see another person bullying another person I try to protect them,” said Campbell. “I can be like a knight, rook or bishop.”
Students have also started to identify with the pieces.
“I like the queen because it can protect other pieces,” said Caralyne Suarez, 10, a fifth-grader. “When I’m at home I feel like the queen. I can tell my brother what to do. I feel like I have more power.”
During one drill, Jackson-Bey emphasized individual thinking skills. Each student on the two teams had to call out a move. When one third grade student couldn’t decide what piece to move and became agitated, an older girl grabbed his hand and calmed him.
“The first thing I hope to see is better decision-making. I want them to take the time to think about what will happen if I make this move. What will be the consequences?” said Jackson-Bey.
“They have to learn to have a plan and that the first plan you have may not be the one you end up with. There will be obstacles.”
Chess Lords currently meets five days a week and Jackson-Bey eventually hopes to expand it to other schools and create a tournament with up to 128 kids. He also has created 20 other educational programs leveraging everything from sign language to photography to help teach kids skills.
“it feels good because I’m in my community and I’m making a difference,” said Jackson-Bey.
Principal Cynthia Mullins-Simmons said in-class math test scores have gotten better and she’s seen student concentration and pride increase.
“One parent told me she was in Riverside Park with her son and he just went over and started giving direction to two older gentlemen playing chess,” said Mullins-Simmons. “They asked where he learned to play, and he said P.S. 36.”
Evans said learning to play chess has been a great experience. She plans to continue playing even after she graduates in June and moves on to middle school.
If she were a chess piece, she said, she’d be the queen.
“What I love about the queen is she is strong, she’s powerful,” said Evans. “She can go anywhere she wants.”