Chicago’s chess wars

I’ve been busy trying to figure out why the Chicago Public Schools doesn’t have a vibrant chess program.

First, let’s state the obvious: CPS should have one. Common sense and research tells you chess is great for kids — it boosts concentration, focus, problem-solving, discipline.

“People talk about chess and math and science but the greatest achievement [for players] is usually in reading and language arts,” explained Robert McLellan of the U.S. Chess Federation McLellan. “That comes from giving kids the idea that they need to focus, they don’t have to rush through things. And they learn that they are solely responsible for their performance, they learn that they can’t blame anyone else.”

If you don’t believe me, check out a documentary airing on WTTW on Monday, Oct. 7  about a terrific chess program at a Brooklyn junior high.

New York City puts Chicago to shame on the chess front, with 23,000 student players versus about 1,500 in Chicago last year, according to the Illinois Chess Association (ICA). New York dominates national competitions rarely even attended by Chicago teams and has low-cost or free tournaments every weekend. The Chicago school system says it has about 140 after-school programs and this year added a once-a-week chess instruction program at 35 schools. CPS says it’s interested in growing its programs.

I learned about Chicago’s lackluster chess offerings from a dogged former prosecutor from New York City (a former Chicagoan who recently moved back to the area). That man, Jerry Neugarten, is chair of the youth committee of the Illinois Chess Association, and a self- (and aptly) described chess zealot.

Neugarten loves chess and is convinced of its transformative powers. He was involved with chess education in New York and now runs a district-wide chess program in Highland Park. His goal is to bring independent, high-quality chess programs and competition to schools in every corner of Chicago.

Neugarten says he has it all worked out.

He and others at the ICA have devised a plan and, Neugarten insists, he has donors ready to pour money in.

CPS wouldn’t have to pay a dime, Neugarten says.

Neurgarten is beyond frustrated because he says CPS and mayor’s office have rebuffed the ICA’s efforts for more than two years, despite making public pronouncements about wanting to expand chess.

Here’s where it gets complicated — Neugarten is demanding that the ICA run the program and that it be independent of CPS before his fund-raisers start soliciting money.

CPS, fairly, isn’t prepared to simply hand over the reins to outsiders. And CPS is far more likely to green light an outside program if the money is already in hand, not just promised.

The effort also is bogged down in personality disputes and internal politics of the chess world. Despite all he has done for the cause, Neugarten’s unyielding stance and unwillingness to partner with CPS appears to be hurting the cause he so passionately advocates for.

Chess supporters, either those affiliated with the ICA or independent, could raise a smaller amount and get started, in partnership with CPS, and hopefully bigger things will follow.

Neugarten is dreaming big, as he should. But so far that hasn’t produced more chess players in Chicago.

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