Chess mates

Lake Highlands’ Jerry Isaacs and Kerri Russell started a chess club for students, many from single-parent and immigrant homes. Photos by Danny Fulgencio

Lake Highlands’ Jerry Isaacs and Kerri Russell started a chess club for students, many from single-parent and immigrant homes. Photos by Danny Fulgencio

Children at L.L. Hotchkiss Elementary are learning life lessons through the new chess club

Last spring, Jerry Isaacs walked from his Lake Highlands home to L.L. Hotchkiss Elementary and asked if he could start a chess club. For some, chess may seem a bit too old-fashioned or complicated for kids, but Isaacs believes it is exactly what some kids need.

A group of about 20 students now meet in the library for an hour after school every Tuesday and Thursday in a battle of brains.

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“Kids perceive chess as something smart people do,” Isaacs says. “Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler played chess. It’s both sides of the spectrum. All types of people play chess.”

Students at Hotchkiss, a Dallas ISD school in the Lake Highlands area, might benefit from the club for many reasons, Isaacs explains. Many of the 1,030 students come from nearby apartments filled mostly with single-parent families, so the club provides adult role models through Isaacs, a retired engineer, and Kerri Russell, staff overseer and fourth-grade teacher. The club creates a sense of community and belonging for students, including the school’s large immigrant population.

“We have needs in this school,” Isaacs says. “Lots of kids need mentors and role models.”

Isaacs found his role on a whim. While he was living in McKinney, he responded to an ad looking for chess club volunteers. He ended up leading three clubs at different schools over the course of five years.

Before he retired, Isaacs designed mail-sorting equipment for the postal service. The intricate machines that sort a billion pieces of mail a day required Isaacs’ best problem-solving approaches as he sought to make the machines cheaper and more efficient.

“Every decision you make has an influence on your life,” Isaacs says. “The ability to look at situations and analyze them and try to come up with the best consequences you can is the essence of chess and, really, the essence of life in many ways. In looking for a job or a companion, everything is an analysis of problems.”

Isaacs says he can’t remember a time when he couldn’t play chess. He does remember one moment from his youth that had a tremendous impact on the rest of his life.

One morning in high school homeroom class, a friend heard Isaacs sing and encouraged him to join the choir, something Isaacs had never considered. He tried out and was accepted, then later joined the glee club at Cornell University, where he went to college. Isaacs had never traveled outside of the United States before college, but the glee club toured places as far as Moscow, Wales, England, China and Singapore. Today, he sings in the Dallas chorus Resounding Harmony.

“Anytime you have any kind of interaction with someone else, there’s a potential that the interaction will be life-lasting,” Isaacs says.

Hotchkiss principal Cecelia Criner has seen chess impact students’ lives similarly. Her friend’s daughter struggled academically but discovered a talent when she joined the chess club and won first place in a tournament.

“It was the one thing she could do,” Criner says.

She began focusing on her grades so she wouldn’t get kicked out of the club, and eventually graduated from high school.

Along with problem solving, chess teaches motivation, concentration and confidence, even in interacting with adults.

“[My son] knows he can beat me,” says Russell, whose child is an elementary-aged chess player at Dealey Montessori. “A lot of kids at this school have a lot of talent, but they don’t get the opportunity [to develop it]. We have good kids here. We have smart kids. We just want them to have opportunities they don’t get.”

While playing chess can be connected to academic performance, Russell and Isaacs purposefully did not choose Hotchkiss students solely because of their good grades. But the number of kids who wanted to join the club last semester exceeded the 20-student limit.

“If we had a facility to accommodate them, we could easily have 100 kids — in an ideal, impossible world,” Isaacs says. “It’s not unreasonable to say 10 percent of the school would love to be in the chess club.”

While Isaacs is hoping for more volunteers, even ones who don’t know how to play chess, limited funding is also an issue. To attend tournaments, the school would need to coordinate transportation. The club would also need money for tournament entry fees and T-shirts. It would be worth it to see the students compete, he and Russell say.

“Tournaments hook kids, even if they do badly,” Russell says.

“We’ll wade right into that tournament,” Isaacs says. “They might get whomped, but that’s OK.”

One rule that “whomps” students is that if they touch a chess piece, they have to move it. Students can’t change their mind after they’ve committed to a move, and it helps to think a few moves ahead.

“You can’t just move your piece without thinking about it. There’s going to be a consequence,” Russell says. “That’s something we work on in school with your behavior — you stop and think about it.”

 

Want to volunteer? Contact Hotchkiss Elementary at 972.749.7000 and fill out a volunteer form online at dallasisd.org/hotchkiss.


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