Few board games have the international staying power of chess. Folks play it on the beach in Hawaii. Sailors in Bali play shuffle pawns on their boats while their tourist clientele go snorkeling. Chess Olympiads feature more countries than just about any other sport (soccer might be the one exception). But the greater United States hasn't quite caught on, said Berkeley Chess School founder Elizabeth Shaughnessy. Chess enjoyed brief popularity during the Bobby Fisher era, but was later supplanted by other pastimes. It's gotten a bit of hipster cachet in recent years, with the rise of Adisa Banjoko's Hip-Hop Chess Federation and advocacy from Wu-Tang rapper the Rza. Still, chess aficionados bemoan Americans' general lack of enthusiasm for the sport. We're not partial to games that require heavy concentration, Shaughnessy explained.
Nonetheless, Shaughnessy persistently touts the values of chess, and has worked for decades to promote it in the Bay Area. Born into an Irish chess-playing family, she learned the game at age four and grew up practicing with her father and brother. She began to play competitively in college and ultimately joined the Irish Women's team, of which she's still a member. She launched Berkeley Chess School in 1982, twelve years after immigrating to Berkeley. Two of her children attended Oxford Elementary School at the time, and she volunteered to teach after-school chess lessons at the principal's behest. She came up with the idea on a lark, not anticipating the 72 students who would show up on the first day, or the parents who would buttonhole her in the coming months. Pretty soon, Shaughnessy had to recruit people from local chess clubs to help teach. She began charging a small fee for those who could afford to pay, initially to compensate her own staff, and later to cover the cost of bringing the program into inner-city schools. She didn't receive any remuneration for the first nine years of Berkeley Chess School's existence.
Today, Berkeley Chess School serves about 5,000 kids throughout the Bay Area. It holds eight regional chess tournaments (two exclusively for girls), offers an international exchange program with an Irish school, and provides regular tutorials in more than 150 schools. It has produced one nineteen-year-old grand master and a couple of international masters, and helped many regular kids learn strategy, critical thinking, and how to be a good loser. (It isn't like Bridge where you can shift blame to your partner, Shaughnessy said.) Moreover, it's improved students' test scores, said Shaughnessy, who, like most educators, is highly perturbed by the achievement gap in public schools. "We're always looking for ways to bridge the gap," Shaughnessy said. "I think this is a way."
Berkeley Chess School holds its Oakland chess program tournament this Thurs., May 21 at Maxwell Park Elementary School (4730 Fleming Ave., Oakland), with 200 third and fourth graders from East Oakland. 9-11 a.m., free. BerkeleyChessSchool.org