Game changer: Volunteer creates chess club that gives kids all the right moves – NWAOnline

Posted: February 16, 2020 at 6:46 am


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Brothers Aaron and Abram Burnett are usually the first two to arrive at CPR Chess Club -- the CPR standing for Critical Thinking, Problem-Solving, Reading -- which meets from 5:30-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas in southwest Little Rock. They are in the advanced class.

A recent Tuesday finds Aaron, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Scholarmade Achievement Place in Little Rock -- wearing multiple medals around his neck ... medals won in chess tournaments, which he's showing visitors. He has been part of the club for about five years.

"At first, I wasn't really interested" in chess, he says. Aaron's grandfather signed him up for it. "And then I just started coming and then I started to get interested in it. You know how in school some people don't really focus? It basically challenges you" to focus, he says.

CPR Chess Club member Aaron Burnett displays some of the medals he has won in chess tournaments. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Aaron got his first medal at his very first chess tournament.

"I just kept on doing chess tournaments. Like, the people that I play ... sometimes I used to hope that [beating them] would be easy. But then -- what's the point of playing 'em if you're just going to beat 'em? Usually when I play people ... that makes me better because I kinda see their strategies, and next time I know how to prevent it or use it against somebody."

Abram Burnett, 9, is in third grade.

"It's like life," he says of the game. "You have to strategize, out-think your opponent."

Tony Davis, nine-time Arkansas state chess champion, uses a hanging chess demonstration board to teach the movement of different chess pieces to young members of the CPR Chess Club. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

In another classroom, nine-time state chess champion Tony Davis, a volunteer coach for the club, is teaching beginning players. He uses a vertical cloth chessboard with pockets to hold the pieces.

"The Queen always goes on the same color as her dress," he tells the students. "So the white queen goes on white. Black queen goes on black. ... Whoever has white always moves first."

Davis shows off a knight game piece.

"This is everybody's favorite piece. He's shaped like a horse, and he jumps over other pieces. He's the only piece that can do that. And when he makes his move, he makes a little L ... he can move over two and up one, or back two and over one. It can be a backwards L, a sideways L, an upside-down L ... Once you master how a knight moves, all the other pieces are easy because all the other pieces move in a straight line."

Davis demonstrates how the other pieces move ... pawn, rook, bishop, queen, king. In chess, the main goal is to capture, or checkmate, the opponent's king, so the direction in which each piece can legally move is vital to winning the game.

Going back and forth to make sure everything runs smoothly is Georgia Morris, the club's founder, who, ironically, doesn't play chess.

Georgia Morris, founder of CPR Chess Club, makes a few practice moves on the board with club member Hansika Ulaganathan, 7, a third-grader at Williams Magnet Elementary School. The club, which also has a Pine Bluff chapter, is a vehicle by which a diverse group of students learns life skills via chess. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Pradeep Parmer)

Morris, an Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield retiree, started CPR Chess Club in August 2013. Her idea for the club was born of a similar but simpler game: Morris' father, who raised her and her seven siblings as a single parent, showed them all how to play checkers.

As he taught, he was "telling [us] all this life-skills stuff, but I didn't really know it was life skills then," Morris says.

A dedicated community volunteer, Morris was pondering ways to work with youth when she met Davis at her former church, Hoover United Methodist. Davis' chess club, the Urban Knights, met across from Central High School. Morris visited the club gatherings to learn how to play. She never mastered the game but learned the basics and was intrigued by it.

"I started Googling, seeing how good [chess] was for kids," she says. "I know it was good for all this critical thinking and focusing and planning ahead -- everything that a child would need to kind of keep them on track," as well as help them in school. "So I decided that I was going to start a chess club."

Morris wanted the club to be near a church so that if the club kids wanted to go to church, they'd be within walking distance. That's what brought her to Mosaic, where she eventually became a part of the congregation. She asked church officials if they'd be open to hosting the chess club, and got a yes.

Morris asked for help from Davis, who did a youth program at Hoover and has worked with young people at several schools. "I've heard people for years talk about how they would [like to] learn to play chess and how they would like to do stuff like what [Morris is] doing," Davis says. "She's the first one I ran into that actually followed through."

She has done outstanding work, says Mark DeYmaz, founding pastor of Mosaic Church -- work "born out of Georgia's passion for young people and our community."

Morris' idea for the program fits in nicely with the church's mission, which was established not just to put on Sunday services but to "empower and free our members" to go after their callings during certain seasons of their life, he says.

"What might seem to be a limitation wasn't a limitation for her. It wasn't really about chess; it was about young people. Chess was a vehicle for their minds and their hearts."

This is evident on this particular Tuesday.

Tessa Vocque considers which chess piece to move during a meeting of the CPR Chess Club at Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Settling at a table across from the Burnett brothers and three other boys is Tessa Vocque, a 7-year-old first-grader at Forest Heights STEM Academy. She has been coming to the club about four months.

She likes the fact that "it doesn't exactly matter who wins and loses," at chess, she says. Here, one doesn't lose. One learns.

"I also like that it's just fun to play," Tessa adds.

Her mother, Cindy Vocque of Little Rock, is just outside the classroom.

When she found out about the club, she felt it would be the perfect outlet for her daughter, Vocque says. "I thought this [would] be great to help her learn some self-control, planning skills, sitting still and just how to use strategies -- not only in a game, but ... in her community and her life."

She sees her strong-willed daughter learning to "self-regulate her emotions," Vocque adds.

Teaching the advanced class is Nate Martin, an architect with WD&D Architects in Little Rock and another of the club's volunteer coaches. Martin became involved with the club more than two years ago when he saw a segment about it on the evening news. He has been playing casually since he was a child.

"What I enjoy the most is when I see something click with a student," Martin says. "One minute they didn't grasp something, and another minute, they grasp it. ... And you see them build on that week after week.

"It's fun just watching the kids ... make some crazy moves and [seeing] what happens."

Darius McCree Sr. of Little Rock, a teacher and the chess coach at Dunbar Middle School, has been plugged into CPR as a coach for about two years. When his students graduated from middle school, he sought a way to keep them together despite them going on to a handful of different high schools. He got in touch with Morris and his former Dunbar students began to visit CPR, becoming members of the club's high-school team.

He uses chess to teach students about life, McCree says. "If you [want to] teach a kid discipline and maturity, chess is the greatest way I know to do that."

KenDrell Collins, a trial attorney at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Arkansas, coaches young chess enthusiasts during a weekly meeting of the CPR Chess Club. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

When he first came to CPR, McCree says, he was amazed at what he saw.

"I tell people all the time that I've been playing this game for 30 years but, I learned from a 5-year-old here. He was 5 when I met him but ... he talked like he was, like, 54."

Fellow coach KenDrell Collins of Little Rock also enjoys seeing the students learn life through chess. A federal public defender, Collins thought he was just going to be helping out here and there with the club. But now, he's teaching a beginner's class, populated primarily with children kindergarten age through second grade.

"In chess, if you make a wrong move ... it has consequences. You might lose that piece," he says. "I deal with people every day who made a lapse in judgment or ... didn't strategically think about an action, and then there was a consequence. So we kind of teach that on a small level, a micro level, to the kids."

Racquel Green of Little Rock is not only the mother of CPR member and trophy winner Kenneth Clay III, a 10-year-old fourth-grader at Pulaski Heights Elementary School, but she's also a volunteer parent.

Davis, Green says, recruited her son to come over and play chess, which he began doing in late 2018. "And ever since, he's been right over here. He does not miss a Tuesday ... If he's had a stressful week, he's looking forward to Tuesday ... 'I have got to go and take this strategy out on chess.' So I like to hear that."

The club has coaxed the once-introverted Kenneth out of his shell, Green adds. "Now, he's more sociable. Now, he's more outgoing. Now, he's more ... proud of himself."

And Green is impressed that Georgia "just knew what God wanted for her to do."

"She didn't wonder how she was going to get the resources. She didn't wonder who was going to support her. She didn't wonder if she was going to have a kid. She just did it."

And Morris was instrumental in getting the Little Rock School District to change its rules about chess.

The district hosts chess tournaments, but these were once open only to the schools that had chess clubs.

Siblings Mert and Nur Korkmaz learn the game of life while play chess during a Tuesday-evening meeting of the CPR Chess Club. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Most of the school-based chess clubs were under the schools' gifted and talented programs. On several occasions, Morris went to the district's former fund and budget coordinator and pleaded with him to allow her club members to participate in these tournaments. He finally relented. The club went to the tournament for the first time in 2017.

"She was doing something that was virtually undone -- in fact, not just virtually undone here, but virtually undone anywhere in the country," Davis says.

Today, CPR's teams are the only community-based teams that can compete in Little Rock School District tournaments. On Feb. 8, more than 20 children from the club participated in the district chess tournament. Members have racked up numerous medals and team trophies; the club itself has garnered such honors as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Service Award, KARK Pay It 4 Ward Award, and the Dunbar Community Award.

CPR didn't just grow bigger; it expanded outside Little Rock. Laverne Tyler of Pine Bluff is over the CPR Chess Club's Pine Bluff branch. Open to anybody and free of charge, it meets from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Thursdays -- and has an in-house tournament -- at the Trinity Annex Building, 2900 W. Sixth Ave. in Pine Bluff. The chapter currently has nearly 20 members ranging from first grade to junior high school. These children also participated in the Feb. 8 Little Rock School District chess tournament.

A member and past master with Cornerstone Lodge No. 1601, Prince Hall Masons in Pine Bluff, Tyler also coaches three youth football teams and shepherds a group of Junior Masons. Determined after a visit to a CPR meeting to take the program back to his own youth, he rounded up some of his football players, and invited a few more, to play chess. "They had never seen chess," Tyler says. "And probably about a month after that, they were playing chess like they'd been playing all their lives."

The game, he explains, "raised up their confidence level. All their teachers [are] saying their grades have come up, their attitudes have gotten better ... And then they're learning to work through difficulties."

CPR-Pine Bluff recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. "We've been competing and winning," Tyler says.

"For me to see them sitting and thinking -- it showed me the potential that exists within them."

Volunteers and donations are welcome at both CPR clubs (Tyler especially seeks male volunteers, whether or not they're chess players). Little Rock donations should go through Vine & Village, vineandvillage.org with the CPR Chess Program indicated. For more information, contact Morris at (501) 416-5348 or gmmorris.cpr55@att.net. For Pine Bluff, contact Tyler at (870) 329-4398 or lavernetyler1975@yahoo.com.

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Game changer: Volunteer creates chess club that gives kids all the right moves - NWAOnline

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February 16th, 2020 at 6:46 am

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