The Newark Chess Club is a 501(c)3 nonprofit mentorship program founded in 2009 in Newark New Jersey. Our mission is to transform lives by building critical thinking skills in children. We use chess as the bonding activity to build a lasting relationship between a mentor and a mentee, and we use chess to teach children how to make better decisions. Our goal is to teach every child in Newark how to play chess and to make sure that every child has a mentor.
So how did this get started? We started the Newark Chess Club after Darryl Scipio, our executive director received a phone call from Scotty. It was a few months after he graduated from Law School and Scotty needed a lawyer.
“Darryl, I need a lawyer”, he said.
Darryl had not yet taken the bar exam, so he could not represent Scotty on this case. Nevertheless, he listened to the problem to determine whether he knew an attorney that could help.
“My 17 year old nephew, who is a knucklehead, went out to Connecticut and got into some trouble. He tried to rob a jewelry store in a mall. He ran into the jewelry store, smashed the display cases, grabbed as much as he could, and ran out. He never even made it out of the mall parking lot. By the time he put his car in drive, he was surrounded by police.”
Darryl was stunned and speechless. His first question to Scotty was “what made him think that was a good idea?” His second question to Scotty was “where was the responsible adult in his life to talk him out of this horrible idea?”
Scotty responded that his nephew was coaxed into the plot by three adults who became strong influences in his nephew’s life. After referring Scotty to a criminal attorney that he could call, Darryl wished Scotty well and hung up the phone.
What made that kid think that robbing a jewelry store in a mall was a good idea? Why didn’t he think it through? And why didn’t he talk to Scotty or some other responsible person in his life before trying to do something so stupid? Why didn’t this kid have a mentor that could talk him out of throwing his life away?
The idea to create a chess program met two needs in the community. The first was a need to help children make better decisions using chess to teach critical thinking. The second was a need to create mentor/mentee relationships between a child and an adult, using chess as the bonding activity between them and using a character development curriculum to draw out those life lessons.
Chess mentors began going to West Side High School once a week on their lunch breaks and playing chess with the students who came into the library. Three thirty-something year old black men in suits and ties sitting quietly in front of chess boards was all it took for students to come over and inquisitively ask “What are y’all doing here?”.
“Want to learn how to play chess?” was their usual response. Sometimes students said yes, and sat down. Sometimes they didn’t and walked over to an open computer to surf the web. But for the ones that did engage with the chess mentors, they were able to open an honest dialogue built on mutual respect.
The chess mentors offered chess lessons and life advice. Some students knew how to play or wanted to learn, and accepted the challenge. That’s when comments like “be patient” or “think before you move” or “focus” would often escape the chess mentors mouths. These chess games helped to build a relationship with students that allowed them to put their guards down and open up to the chess mentors about their lives.
The same students started coming back every week. “So what are your plans for college?” and “What is your job like?” became the subjects of many conversations. By the end of the school year, the chess mentors had chess teams set up at West Side and Central high schools. They held a chess tournament between the three schools with pizza and trophies for the winner. The chess mentors were a hit and had the feeling that they were onto something.
From there, the organization received its tax-exempt 501(c)3 designation from the IRS and started a Saturday program at the Boys and Girls Club on Avon Ave in Newark for 25 children. With the help of a generous funder, they provided lunch each Saturday and took the students on field trips to Washington DC.
Next, we formed a partnership with Newark Public Schools and launched the chess club at the Marion Bolden Student Center, and formed a partnership with the City of Newark and launched the chess club at the Sharpe James/Kenneth Gibson Recreation Center. Next, Eagle Academy Newark asked them to develop a chess program. They went over to Eagle once a week for two hours, building their after school chess program. They took Eagle students to play chess matches against other Newark schools that had established teams, and Eagle held its own. That was 2013.
Fast forward to 2018 and the Newark Chess Club currently operates in 25 elementary schools in the city of Newark and hold several large chess tournaments each year. The Newark Chess Club also provides thousands of dollars in scholarships to tournament winners and participants.
The goal of our program is to use chess to teach life skills and to help children make better decisions.