Athens, Ga., teens build community, life skills through chess

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ATHENS, Ga. — School-aged children and their chess boards taking over a downtown Athens pizzeria isn’t too typical a sight on a Friday night. But every third Friday, young chess masters meet at Little Italy to compete with rooks and pawns against one another, and often older community members.

Gerald Smith, 16, (center), thinks about his next move during a chess match at Little Italy in downtown Athens. The Chess and Community group aims to help at-risk teens.   RICHARD HAMM/ASSOCIATED PRESS
RICHARD HAMM/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Gerald Smith, 16, (center), thinks about his next move during a chess match at Little Italy in downtown Athens. The Chess and Community group aims to help at-risk teens.

Over slices of pizza, the teens battle at the game board with the broader goal of learning to think before they act, said organizer Lemuel LaRoche.

LaRoche, a social worker, has long incorporated chess into his work with at-risk teens. The strategies a chess player employs on the board can translate to real life, he said. Last year, LaRoche organized the inaugural Chess and Community Conference, where students from North Georgia competed in chess and composed essays that challenged them to think about their roles in society.

Last week, for the first time since 2008, LaRoche lead an eight-member chess team up to the national Bum Rush the Board chess competition in Washington, D.C. The team competed November 1 and 2.

LaRoche, whose 2008 team took second place in the competition, said chess teaches teens to “think before you move” – also the conference’s motto. But a group of young, low-income, black children seen engaging in a battle of strategy also challenges negative stereotypes that even the children themselves sometimes believe, he said.

“We want to show the good, the talent, in the Athens community,” LaRoche said. “We can show (young people) committing crime, or we can show them using their intelligence.”

Clarke County School District substitute teacher Broderick Flanigan, one of LaRoche’s partners, has seen students channel their energy onto the game board.

“I think it helps them slow down,” he said.

Frank Howard has “too many examples” of how he’s used chess strategy to counteract impulsive behavior.

A seven-year chess veteran, 17-year-old Howard has used chess to excel in school; he’s jointly enrolled at Clarke Central High School and Athens Technical College.

“Sometimes when I’m angry, chess helps me think of the consequences,” Howard said.

“In my opinion, chess is the ultimate metaphor for life,” said Zak Hardaway, a recent graduate of Cedar Shoals High School planning on attending Georgia State University. He calls chess a form of mediation.

“Impulsiveness is not something that can happen when you think,” Hardaway said.

Taking his chess team to Washington, D.C., isn’t cheap, explained LaRoche, who cited a lack of funding as the main reason he hadn’t taken a team since 2008. He hopes to attract business leaders and more community partners to build the youth chess community.

Donations to help the team pay for Bum Rush the Board can be made by visiting chessandcommunity.org.

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