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Elizabeth Shaughnessy

Founder and president, Berkeley Chess School, Berkeley, California


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Stephen Voss

Chess is an extraordinary tool for nurturing children’s cognitive, social and academic development. For 40 years, the Berkeley Chess School has provided multilevel classes, camps, teams and tournaments for more than 7,000 children and adults annually in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Providing free or low-cost chess instruction is integral to our mission. Fully a third of all children in our fee-based programs receive scholarships. Our free, chess outreach program serves economically disadvantaged and at-risk children and youth in poorly resourced Title 1 schools. No child is ever turned away due to an inability to pay.

The problem I'm trying to solve

​​In California, only 15 percent of African American students and 18 percent of Latino students meet or exceed 8th grade math standards, compared with 42 percent of white students and 68 percent of Asian students. This disparity is fueled by a number of factors, including childhood poverty, segregated and underfunded schools, and lower expectations for students of color. The opportunity gap only worsened during the pandemic.​

Chess is a way to even the playing field. When a child plays chess, they must think logically and ask questions. When they make a move, they decide in real time and live with the consequences. It enhances critical thinking skills, which helps improve academic outcomes for all children.​

The moment that sparked my passion

One of my earliest memories is of watching my father play chess with a refugee sheltering in our home in Ireland during World War II. By age 5, I was playing with my family for fun. I loved tactics, strategy and, of course, winning. Later I became the Irish women’s chess champion, playing in Olympiads all over the world. When I agreed to teach my first free after-school chess class at my children’s elementary school in 1982, I brought six borrowed chess sets and expected 10 children, including my own. Seventy children came. Founding the Berkeley Chess School became inevitable, and once there was a school, we had to go where we were needed most — into underserved communities.

What I wish other people knew

Chess can be a crucial part of child development. The human mind needs the depth of thinking required by the game. People also assume that a child who struggles in the classroom will struggle with chess. But a lot of the children who find learning a challenge love chess. They look forward to it like no one’s business. I vividly remember a pair of brothers who were very smart but resident troublemakers. They always gave their teachers a hard time and were constantly in the principal’s office. No educator in that school thought they would do well in my chess class. Yes, at the beginning, they did sit in the back and act up, but that ended once they became interested in the game. They quickly became two of my top chess players, and their behavior at school improved dramatically as well. They finally learned to sit still, listen and learn.​​

The benefits of chess also go beyond academics. I remember one fifth grade student — Mateo, a child with Asperger’s syndrome who struggled with social skills. With chess, Mateo found his tribe and a sport he could excel at. Chess provides structure and instills confidence in children trying to navigate an emotionally chaotic world. Today, Mateo is an extremely successful professional.

Advice to others who want to make a difference​​

Pay attention to children. Listen to them, give them a new challenge, and sit back and see the things that happen. Learning isn’t just about filling your mind with facts — it’s about stimulating it, too. When your mind begins to question those facts, that is learning. It’s like reading literature: You can skim a book, but those who read deeply and ask questions discover so much more than those who don’t.

Why my approach is unique

There are many excellent chess programs in the greater Bay Area, but our outreach program is the only one devoting significant resources to provide free or reduced-fee chess instruction in Title 1 schools. The majority of children in these underfunded schools are economically disadvantaged, with families lacking enough income to meet basic needs. Almost all are new to chess. We nurture and engage their intellect by teaching them not what to learn, but how. A simple $10 chess set opens a whole new world to them.​

Over the years, our programs have yielded a world youth champion, four grandmasters, international masters and many state and national champions. But the vision of the Berkeley Chess School has never been about producing masters, though that often happens. The mission is to help all children, especially those struggling with learning inequalities, reach their full academic potential, flourish as good citizens and good human beings, and become champions of their own lives.​

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