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Opportunity Lost: Chess in Chicago Public Schools

Mayor Emanuel and the Chicago Public Schools frequently speak about the pursuit of excellence for our children. Their intentions are good, but bureaucracy, budget woes and special interests often get in the way. Chicago’s approach to scholastic chess is a telling example.

Chess is unquestionably one of the best tools for developing young minds and providing safe after-school alternatives. New York City gets it. They have 23,000 players in K-12. Their kids dominate national tournaments. Regardless of their socio-economic background, kids in New York City have access to chess.

Our mayor gets it, too. He said in a recent letter, “It is no secret that learning the fundamentals of chess and playing regularly directly impacts success in the classroom, extracurricular activities, and in life. Chess promotes the important qualities of decision-making and sportsmanship … (and) serves players well in their endeavors within a variety of business, professional and academic areas.” (Letter of August 3, 2013 accepting an award naming Chicago “Chess City of the Year”)

Illinois Chess Association

So how does Chicago’s program stack up? Chicago has a mere 1,500 players in K-12, and our kids rarely even show up for regional and national tournaments. Roughly 10% of Chicago schools have chess programs in relation to percentages as high as 80% elsewhere.

Why should a first-class city have a third-class program?

It isn’t that no one has tried. In 2011, the Illinois Chess Association (ICA) proposed to build a chess education program across the entire CPS system. ICA offered to raise independent funding for the program and build the organization the city needs. Like New York City, Chicago could enjoy a central chess office that promotes chess, trains educators, runs tournaments, and recruits nationally-ranked players as coaches. The program was endorsed by virtually the entire Illinois chess community, including all of the state’s Grandmasters and International Masters, the elite of the chess world (…

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