Ms. Marian Edmonds, a teacher at Price Middle School, was on cafeteria duty in the fall of 2017 when she pulled out a chess board. The kids seemed interested, so she taught a few to play. A few turned into more, and the Price chess team was formed.
Many of these students had never played a board game before, but as they practiced each day, they began to show great promise in chess.
“I started teaching chess as a way to connect with students because we come from different backgrounds. Since then, it has become so much more to us,” says Ms. Edmonds. She had previously led the chess team at her former school and understood the potential benefits of the game. “Chess makes us equal. All you need is the opportunity and the motivation.”
Aquantis Clemmons, an eighth-grader at Price, was one of those students who quickly picked up the sport.
“Chess is a sport that anybody can play, but we don’t embrace it because we don’t know it,” says Laquita Peters, Aquantis’ mom. “Giving Aquantis the exposure to chess pushed him to get more involved. And once he did that, it exploded. Now, he’s a chess champion.”
The team of first-timers gained momentum when Ms. Edmonds began bringing them to tournaments. In April 2019, the team attended the state tournament and placed sixth overall.
Ms. Edmonds won an award from Purpose Built Schools Atlanta to attend a teaching conference of her choice. She decided to use her prize to take five chess players to the US Chess Federation’s National Junior High Championship in Grapevine, Tx., instead.
To qualify, students submitted a personal essay explaining the impact chess had made on their lives. Aquantis Clemmons, Keylon Harris, Corey Session, Montayo North and Cierra Patton were selected to make the trip and compete.
“Chess has impacted my life because it has made me a better person,” Cierra Patton wrote in her essay. “Have you heard of a quote that life is a game of chess? Well, that’s how I view my life now. I feel like I’m a knight.”
For many of the chess players, the flight to Texas was their first time on a plane.
When they arrived to the national tournament, Ms. Edmonds could sense their nerves. “This was hardly an even playing field,” says Ms. Edmonds. “Most kids at the tournament had been playing since they were kids, some with professional coaches and training. Our students had to learn how to simply play a board game: how to compete, take turns, manage frustration, lose gracefully, and persist through losses. And yet, here we were, at the same competition, facing those same chess boards.”
It was easy for the students to feel intimidated when matched against experienced players who had been professionally coached since they were children. At each round, Price students sat nervously as their opponents greeted them. Inevitably, they would ask, “How long have you been playing?”
The Price chess team, who have only been playing one or two years, were uncomfortable when they heard their opponent had played since pre–K and trained with a chess program.
“I would walk over and whisper in our players’ ears, ‘That kid wouldn’t last a single day at Price Middle School. You’ve GOT this!’” says Ms. Edmonds. “They grinned and proceeded to give the child a ferocious battle, usually ending victorious.”
In the end, Price’s chess players outperformed the vast majority of their well-trained peers. Aquantis placed 5th individually, while the team placed 16th overall.
The team awards ceremony was scheduled for Sunday night, but because the team wasn’t originally expected to place, their return flights home to Atlanta were booked at the same time. The tournament leaders were so inspired by Price’s tremendous performance, they arranged to have the team’s trophies delivered to them at the gate of the airport as they waited to board their flight.
Victoriously, the Price chess team boarded their plane with trophies in hand. Their fellow passengers cheered them on. Aquantis, Keylon, Corey, Montayo and Cierra beamed from ear to ear.
They left Atlanta as chess players, but returned as champions.
“All we’ve done is give these students a chance,” says Ms. Edmonds. “We’ve given them a way to believe in themselves and help them understand that they are brilliant, and they can think critically, problem solve, and use their wits, smarts, and instincts to be successful.”
Why Chess Matters
Ms. Edmonds believes chess is a great way for Price students to learn life lessons. “Every move that you make has a consequence. Stopping to think about the consequences of every move has long lasting impact,” says Ms. Edmonds.
Chess gives students an understanding of strategy and consequences, all while developing confidence and improving concentration.
“When we looked at their test scores, the students who are on the chess team outperformed their peers by far in reading and math,” says Luqman Abdur-Rahman, principal at Price Middle School.
“We attribute that to the critical thinking skills they’re building in chess with Ms. Edmonds, but also on the confidence they’re building. Many of our students have skills that don’t show up on the balance sheet every day, but if you put them in the right circumstance, they take off.”