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Milwaukee Chess Program Helps Inner City Kids Develop Life Skills

LaToya Dennis

For many kids, summer means sleeping in late, hanging out with friends and having a whole lot of fun. For some, it’s also means strategizing their next move. 

A new program teaches kids a game that could help them in every aspect of life -- chess.

Eleven year old Grant Jones has a really big goal in life. “I want to surpass everyone in what they know how to do. I don’t like to offend people, but that’s my goal in life, surpass everyone,” he says.

WUWM's LaToya Dennis met Jones at the Sherman Park Boys and Girls Club. It’s one of five sites that hosted new chess clinics this summer. Jones was one of about 15 or so kids playing the day I visited. Some were familiar with the game, but most were newcomers.  

“I like chess, I think it’s fun...I’ve seen other people play,” Jones says.

Right now, the kids are crowded around a large chess board. It’s a black and white 10 foot square with pieces that stand around 24 inches high. They use this board to learn different moves and strategies before moving over to rows of normal sized chess boards to play each other.  

The chess program is for kids in grades 2-12, but Bob Patterson Sumwalt says the younger they start the better. “If they study chess in second and third grade that helps them get to second and third grade reading levels," he says.

Patterson Sumwalt founded the Wisconsin Scholastic Chess Federation. It’s behind the summer clinics. "Going out the third grade, that’s the demarcation line of whether or not kids get out of high school, if they can read at a third grade level when they come out of third grade,” he says.


Patterson Sumwalt says learning the game of chess teaches kids important skills, such as patience and critical thinking.

But for the kids, chess is mainly a fun game, according to 10 year old D’AntwanMcafee.

He started playing chess at church about three months ago and couldn’t wait for the summer camps to start.

“My favorite subject is math, and chess is basically like math,” Mcafee says.

After running me through the basics, Mcafee challenged LaToya Dennis to a game - a bit unfair as she's never played chess a day in her life - so she enlisted the help of nine year old Jovan-Antoine Smith.

Jovan-Antoine says he loves the challenge chess presents. “Like if you’re in a tournament and you don’t know what to do. You have to think about it and they give you a certain time to think about it. You have to have a strategy before you play,” Smith says.

In the end, Jovan-Antoine and Dennis beat their opponent, but she admits, he did all the heavy maneuvering. 

The boys say basketball and football are their favorite activities. But the game of chess comes in a close second. The chess clinics just wrapped up for the summer. But now, five chess clubs are being formed across the city to keep kids engaged in the game.


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