CHESSanity: A Story

“Dad! I want to teach too!” cried my little brother, Wesley, then only ten years old.

My dad (who then was, ironically, trying to solve some chess tactics himself) huffed in annoyance at my brother’s irritating persistence.

“You’re too young to teach,” he sighed for the umpteenth time. “Your brother is already fourteen and almost in high school. Nobody wants to learn from a ten-year-old.”

Undeterred, my brother continued his tantrum. After half an hour of incessant wailing, my parents finally gave in and found a willing six-year-old student who lived only five minutes away from our home. In an unexpected turn of events, my brother’s fervent passion for teaching actually transcended his supposedly young age.

It was around this time that parents in my community began latching onto the notion that chess could really benefit their child’s development. As relatively cheap but effective options, my brother and I were the perfect fit for beginners. His students, as well as mine, began growing in number.

Soon enough, the inquiries about my brother’s and my availability to teach overwhelmed my parents’ WeChat inboxes. As full-time students with extracurricular activities outside of chess, my brother and I did not have the time to give chess lessons to 10 students a week. So, in order to accommodate the heavy influx of requests we were receiving, my brother and I began giving group lessons every Friday night starting from early 2014.

Our inaugural group of 6 to 8-year-olds was probably the most talented group I have ever worked with. Some alumni include Liran Zhou (currently the #1 ranked 9-year-old in the nation and 2016 K-3 National Champion), Ellen Wang (currently the #1 ranked 9-year-old girl in the nation), Lisa Jin, Edison Huang, and Jeffrey Zhai. All of these brilliant young kids are currently ranked in the top 100 in their age group in the nation—and to think they arrived at our weekly Friday night lessons without a clue on how to play chess.

Greater NY Scholastics (2/5/17); Back, left to right: Wesley and Warren Wang; Front, left to right: Lisa Jin, Ellen Wang, Jeffrey Zhai, Edison Huang, Liran Zhou

With such success so early on, what was there to lose?

And so our teaching career took off, and CHESSanity’s foundation was born.

By the fall of 2015, I had been teaching chess in the aforementioned manner for over a year and a half. It’s incredibly hard to ascertain what exactly sparked the idea of our next initiative, but the thousands of dollars in tuition we had thus far collected from students wasn’t just about to go to a new iPhone or a new video game console.

Still, there is one memory in particular that stands out when I reflect back on various inspirations for our current main project: CHESSanity’s Adopt-A-School-Initiative.

When I was in tenth grade, my school’s varsity badminton team traveled to Hempstead High School for an away game. Entering the school, I was shocked to see metal detectors embodying the entrance and armed guards patrolling the hallways. Having been fortunate enough to be sheltered from such conditions, I had only seen such sights on TV or on the news. Yet, Hempstead High School was only a 20-minute drive away from my home…

At the end of the day, although my team won, my biggest takeaway was not the victory, but the memory of a then unimaginable sight.

After some research, I discovered that Hempstead wasn’t alone—this aforementioned visual typifies many school landscapes. Over time, I came to realize that these excessive safety precautions were actually representative of an inherent sense of trouble and unrest in the surrounding environment. In these schools, crime filled a void in students’ lives early on—a void that exemplified a lack of resources. It was crime that became their escape from reality.

By this time, I had achieved the USCF Candidate Master title as well as a multitude of experience as a chess teacher; I knew what beneficial impact chess could have on an individual. In winter of 2015, while running my weekly Friday night lessons, I had an epiphany. For my pupils, I was able to transform chess from a board game into an inherent part of their lives. Why not introduce chess to these underprivileged students? Why not chess to fill their void?

Using our newfound Adopt-A-School initiative as a springboard, I began my journey to mitigate the problems schools like Hempstead faced. Soon, the “sent” tab of my Gmail became littered with unanswered messages. Undeterred, I continued to persevere—I felt obligated to ameliorate these students’ plight.

A breakthrough came in the spring of 2016. Through a series of email exchanges, a meeting with the superintendent, and a generous donation of 55 chess sets, CHESSanity was accepted into the Wyandanch School District and invited to a Board of Education meeting.

Other schools began to follow in quick succession. My brother and I completed a 3-hour intensive training session for Roosevelt school district’s elementary and middle school students in March. Additionally, during the past spring, we conducted lessons every other Thursday for 1st-3rd graders in the Hempstead school district.

Jackson Main School (Hempstead, NY) – 3/23/17
Lesson Time! (Jackson Main School)

Overall, the positive feedback we are seeing is enormous—after a few sessions at Hempstead’s Jackson Main elementary school, I found that the impact I strived for had been realized. These young children were beginning to spend their free time studying from their very own “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” book. We had finally filled their void.

Though, over the years, I’ve come to realize that I’m not only teaching to fulfill some parents’ unrealistic expectations for their children, nor am I teaching in order to supposedly improve critical thinking abilities in these same children (of course, that’s just an added bonus).

What I’m really hoping for is that these students will take an intense liking for chess—it can be a passion that they will take with them for a lifetime. 

After all, aren’t we all just playing chess because we love it?

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