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Man Over Board

Man Over Board
Chess Coach Michael McDuffie Wants to get kids playing the game

Chess is a game of strategy and conquest. Move by move players must act and react as the game changes. In recent years the board game’s popularity has been put in “check,” as younger generations become more attracted to flashy new technology. However, United States Chess Federation Chess Coach Michael McDuffie has a counter move to this trend, and it starts by bringing chess to local children.

McDuffie has been working with the United States Chess Federation (USCF) for 17 years, and holds programs and tournament in the Buffalo area for all ages. His certification with USCF means that any tournament he operates is USCF sanctioned, earning anyone who completes a tournament national ranking points. A big problem McDuffie has been finding recently is getting players for these tournaments. “The turn out has not been what I’ve wanted it to be, considering the game and what it brings, and who should be playing,” said McDuffie. “If I get people coming in from outside of the city they want to play someone new that they couldn’t find when they play at home. I’ve been trying to find ways to get more kids involved in the game.”

On almost any day of the week you can find McDuffie running a chess program somewhere around the area. “I’m in Lockport on Monday nights, on Tuesdays I’m at Gloria J Parks Community Center and then the Audubon Library, on Wednesday I’m at the Aloma D Johnson Charter School and the Merriweather Library. Thursday I’m back at Audubon, and Fridays I’m at the Old First Ward Community Center, along with anything else I can come up with,” said McDuffie, who is a big believer in the benefits to young students playing chess. “There are studies that find that kids who play chess perform better on their test scores. [Mayor Brown] has a reading program for the city schools, but studies have found that if you add reading and chess, the kids who read and play chess do better than the kids that just read,” said McDuffie. “Chess helps develop the mind, but also social skills. It makes kids shake hands with each other, ask questions like: ‘What’s your name? Would you like to play?’ Chess also shows that just because someone might look different or dress better than you, it does not mean they are going to win the game.”

McDuffie works with young students by breaking down the game into small scenarios so they can better understand what each piece does. “Sometimes kids will say things like: ‘I don’t want to play that’s a boring game,” but once you immerse them into an activity, most of the time the kids all of the sudden catch on and then they say: “oh this isn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be.’ This way they get introduced to chess, they get to learn it and over time they can really enjoy the game,” said McDuffie.

Despite the benefits, chess is not something that most Buffalo schools introduce to their students, unlike schools downstate in the New York City area. “New York City has something called ‘Chess In The Schools’ where chess is part of kids regular school curriculum,” said McDuffie. According to the Chess In The Schools website, during the 2013-2014 school year the program taught 13,00 students in 51 schools.

“Each third-grade classroom and sixth-grade classroom in participating schools is assigned a Chess-in-the-Schools trained instructor. The instructor teaches an hour-long chess lesson once a week in five classrooms during the school day in the fall semester and in five different classrooms in the spring semester. Each instructor teaches 250 to 300 students in each school during the year. Lessons are scheduled on the same day and time each week, and classroom teachers often remark that attendance is highest on ‘chess day,’ according to the program’s website.

“Last weekend was the K—Sixth National Chess Championships, in Nashville, TN. The state with the most teams in the tournament was New York, with 93 teams. Of those 93 teams, there was only one team from upstate New York, which were two of my students from George M. Southard Elementary in Lockport,” said McDuffie. “Every other New York team came from New York City, Bronx, Manhattan, and the other boroughs that are down there, and it’s because they have chess is schools.”

There are some local after school programs run through Erie County BOCES that have kids getting involved in chess but they are not affiliated with USCF, something that McDuffie feels is another missed opportunity. “Most of the kids involved in those programs are not members of [USCF] and that means they are missing out on a greater opportunity because a lot of colleges and universities now offer scholarships for playing chess,” said McDuffie. “University of Maryland at Baltimore County [UMBC] offers at $41,000 chess scholarship, but you have to be a member of the chess federations, and win a [USCF} tournament to be eligible.”

While the UMBC scholarship is one of the highest reward values, scholarships for chess playing or chess mixed with academic achievements are offered at universities across the country ranging from $500 to over $10,000 yearly. The largest scholarship value goes to the best female chess player—a $68,000 scholarship.

According to McDuffie, females and minorities are the fastest growing demographics in chess, but less than 8 percent of all females play the board game. “When I heard that statistic I said: ‘How is that possible? There’s always a queen on the chess board.’ I immediately changed the name of the chess club at the Merriweather Library, from the Urban Knights, to the Urban Queens and Knights Chess Club to try to get more girls interested in the game,” said McDuffie. “The more young girls we can get playing the game the better. Chess is great because it gives them an equal playing field to play against boys. I’ve found that the girls I work with, when you teach them properly they have a tendency to beat boys, and when they do you see their self esteem go up, which is a great thing because in this area I feel that young girls are very underserved.”

Those interested in any of the after school programs or chess tournaments McDuffie facilitates can email for more information.

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