September 5, 2016

America's Young Chess Champs

By Alejandro Ramirez

American Jeffery Xiong won the World Junior Chess Championship in India at the age of 15 last month, the first American to win the title since 1997. Even in a game known for prodigies, his rise has been meteoric. Born and raised in Coppell, Texas, near Dallas, Jeffrey is the latest star in what one might call a chess renaissance. The new model for U.S. chess success is a uniquely American recipe: private sponsorship combined with school programs and a dollop of vintage Soviet chess know-how.

The Young Stars-Team USA program, a collaboration between the Kasparov Chess Foundation and the Saint Louis Chess Club, is churning out elite players at an impressive rate. Former Soviet chess world champion and political activist Garry Kasparov, now based in New York City, and Michael Khodarkovsky, the foundation’s president, have built a program similar to the one Mr. Kasparov attended as a youth in the Soviet Union.

Mr. Khodarkovsky scouts the best talent from numerous chess programs around the country. The Young Stars get coaching support and participate in semiannual training sessions with Mr. Kasparov. The program has produced a half-dozen world champions in different age categories.

But to find promising young players, those players must exist. As Mr. Kasparov says, finding talent and creating champions “starts with broadening the base, especially through the education system.” Chess clubs have for generations been a part of U.S. secondary education. But the Kasparov Chess Foundation, founded in 2002, instead promotes chess as part of the regular educational curriculum, and its program is now in schools from coast-to-coast and around the globe. That master-level chess players have emerged from U.S. inner cities is an inspirational side effect; the best results are the many happy kids, parents and educators.

The benefits of teaching chess in schools are increasingly well-documented. Studies from Germany to New York have found that regular chess play improves concentration, analytical skills and creative problem-solving. The game is accessible and economical, and as such is perfect for bolstering education in underprivileged schools. Most important, chess is fun, leading to improved morale and attendance.

Meanwhile, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, founded by retired investment banker and philanthropist Rex Sinquefield, has formed a partnership with Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S., to form the Your Move Chess program, which brings before- and after-school chess programs to underserved areas in St. Louis. The feedback has been so positive that there are plans to expand the program around the country.

We aren’t quite at the level of the Cold War “Bobby Fischer Boom,” when chess sets were sold out across America. There are far more distractions today with the internet, social media, smartphones. But who knows? With teen champs like Jeffery Xiong making news, and chess programs on the rise, perhaps it won’t be long before chess is more popular than “Pokémon Go.” One can dream.