ST. LOUIS — Ten-year-old Tyson Stegall stared intently at the chess board as his opponent, grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez, pondered a move. The fourth-grader gave a little grimace, then a smile, when Ramirez finished him off with a checkmate.
“He trapped me,” Tyson said.
Tyson is among dozens of students from the Ferguson, Missouri, area who have taken to chess over the past school year, part of a pilot program called Your Move Chess aimed at expanding young residents’ minds and helping them cope with what has been a troubling couple of years in the region. Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, drew national attention after 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in a 2014 police shooting there.
On May 24, 11 grade-schoolers from Walnut Grove Elementary School in the Ferguson-Florissant School District gathered at the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center for a year-end celebration with T-shirts, certificates and a final set of matches, including one in which Ramirez played each student simultaneously.
The chess club is open to students in the predominantly black district’s 17 grade schools and three middle schools. Third-grade teacher Wyntra Storms, a mentor to the young chess players, said the unrest that followed Brown’s death was difficult on the kids. She said many still tear up when they talk about it.
The chess club is making a difference, helping rebuild their confidence, she said.
“They are learning to focus,” Storms said. “A lot of them, when we first mentioned chess, said, ‘I can’t do that. I’m not smart enough.’ They found out they could do it, and it really excites them.”
Brown, who was black and unarmed, was fatally shot during an Aug. 9, 2014, confrontation with Darren Wilson, a white police officer. A St. Louis County grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice cleared Wilson of criminal wrongdoing. He resigned in November 2014.
But the shooting and the grand jury decision months later spurred protests that included violent confrontations between police and demonstrators, as well as the looting and burning of businesses.
The St. Louis-based Catholic health care company Ascension partnered with the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center to offer a program to help young people from the Ferguson area get through the turmoil.
“This is about creating opportunity,” Ascension spokesman Johnny Smith Jr. said. “We want them to use their critical thinking skills, to concentrate, to use their patience, to challenge themselves.”
Tony Rich, executive director of the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center, said chess has an unfounded stigma as a game for the wealthy or elite. In fact, it’s inexpensive, easy to teach and fun for kids from all walks of life, he said.
“It gives them the opportunity to realize, ‘I can be smart and accomplish things,’” Rich said.
Early evidence from the after-school chess program is encouraging, Ascension officials said. A survey of participants showed that 85 percent of them look forward to school more on days when they have the chess club; 94 percent say chess has taught them that they can complete difficult tasks with enough effort; 92 percent say it has made them more confident in the ability to learn difficult material.
Nine-year-old Dorielle Guy-Bey said she believes her grades have improved since she learned to play chess.
“It makes me think more,” the third-grader said.
Tyson, the fourth-grader, agreed.
“You learn to solve problems,” he said. “It has helped me with my math.”
Smith said Ascension, which operates 137 hospitals along with 30 senior living facilities and various other medical offices in 24 states, may eventually expand the chess program to other districts in St. Louis and elsewhere.