© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

On Chess: New partnership brings after-school chess to the Ferguson-Florissant School District

Students at Walnut Grove Elementary School provided a rapt audience for the unveiling of a new chess program.
Austin Fuller | Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis | File photo
Students at Walnut Grove Elementary School provided a rapt audience for the unveiling of a new chess program.

This past Tuesday morning, Walnut Grove Elementary School of Ferguson, hosted the official launch of a new after-school chess instruction pilot program. More than 30 students were on hand along with Principal Jennifer Andrade to welcome their special guests as well as to challenge the grandmasters in attendance to a competitive but friendly game of chess. Photographers, reporters and camera persons were also on hand to record this special event.

Joseph Davis, superintendent for the Ferguson-Florissant School District, opened the festivities by explaining:

“My job is to make sure that each and every student in the Ferguson-Florissant School District receives an excellent education. That is what I think about each and every day. Which is why I’m so pleased to announce a partnership with Ascension, the nation’s largest nonprofit health system, the sponsor for this initiative, together with the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center, which will provide the coaching, training manuals as well as chess sets to make this pilot chess program one of the finest in the country.” “It is vital that each and every one of you learn critical thinking skills including problem solving. When you play chess, you must think carefully because every move offers choices as well as consequences. We want you to not only be smart but to help you reach your full potential by developing your brain with these special set of skills.”

Nick Ragone, the chief communications and marketing officer for Ascension, then explained how this special partnership began to form from a simple conversation with his son:

“My 10 year old and I play chess together and we began to talk about his chess-in-schools experience. He asked me a great question, ‘Dad why doesn’t every school have a chess program?’ The more I thought about my son’s question, it changed and became a challenge. One I accepted. So I spoke with the directors of Ascension and explained the type of pilot chess program in schools that we would responsibly create: A pilot program not just for a single school but for all the elementary schools in an entire district. Ascension’s directors were enthusiastic and approved the sponsorship. We chose the Ferguson-Florissant School District to launch this pilot program, but we needed a partner. A group that could provide the materials, the classroom instruction as well as chess sets to make the program a success. Ascension turned to the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis and found a willing and able partner. Best of all, they have extensive knowledge of the field.”

Tony Rich, the executive director of the chess club, then explained his organization’s history:

“We were founded by Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield as an Educational Trust. Indeed, our mission statement is to bring chess instruction into schools in order to positively impact the lives of young people. Seven years later, I’m pleased to inform you that we have provided instruction to over 2,000 students in the St. Louis school system last year alone. We are ready to broaden our efforts and I’m delighted that soon the Chess Club will be able to offer outstanding chess instruction from our qualified instructors here in the Ferguson-Florissant school district. I’m grateful to Dr. Joseph Davis for extending to us this fantastic opportunity. Like Nick Ragone and our sponsors at Ascension, I view this opportunity as a challenge -- a challenge that if successful could be rolled out across the country as a nation-wide effort.” 

After introducing the grandmasters in attendance -- Alejandro Ramirez, Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley -- Rich invited Ashley to share his own scholastic experiences with the students.

Ashley said he learned chess in school:

“I had a special friend at school, ‘Chico,’ he taught me how to play chess and he beat me like a drum. In fact he beat me so badly I was determined to win a game from him. I needed help! I turned to the library and discovered a whole book written about chess. Well, I want to tell you I studied that book hard and couldn’t wait to challenge Chico again. I was so excited you cannot imagine. But it turned out that Chico was not only familiar with the book I had read but about nine others as well! Chico was a really strong amateur player and I needed to read and study a lot more. Eventually, due to hard work, I was able to beat Chico; in fact, thanks to his rivalry he inspired me to hone my skill further than I had ever imagined. I became the first African-American grandmaster in the country. But chess has been so much more than just a game or a job. It has allowed me to travel the whole world and to meet so many wonderful and talented people.”

Ashley went through a long list of celebrities he had met who also played chess. After explaining how hard he had to work to become a grandmaster, Ashley made a challenge to all the students. “Who thinks they can beat me?” Every child raised their hand. “Ambitious!  I like that. Let’s get started!” And with that the games began.

Grandmasters Ramirez, Seirawan and Ashley were swamped by challengers but rising to the occasion as can only befit a grandmaster, all three were unbowed and left the children with happy smiles.

Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan is a four-time U.S. Chess Champion, ranked within the top-100 players in the world as late as 2007. Now retired from competition, Seirawan is a published chess author and journalist, as well as the star commentator for such elite events as the U.S. Championships and the Sinquefield Cup.