In students’ lives, Berkeley Chess School makes moves

Claralyse Palmer/Staff
Josiah Stearman, 11, recently became a National Master in chess.

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In 1981, Elizabeth Shaughnessy, an Irish mother of three, was asked by her son’s Bay Area elementary school to help provide after-school opportunities for students. As a former Irish women’s chess champion, Shaughnessy’s response was to start an after-school chess program.

“I had 72 kids on the first day!” she recalled. “And I only had six chess sets because I was just expecting something around 10.”

But Shaughnessy’s after-school chess program would go on to touch many more than those 72 kids. In fact, it would eventually outgrow itself and morph into the Berkeley Chess School – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The school provides free after-school opportunities for Title I schools in the Oakland and Richmond area, along with private lessons outside of these schools.

“We’re unique in that we teach all kids,” Shaughnessy explained. “We charge when they can afford to pay and give scholarships when they can’t, or in the case of Title I schools, we go in during the day.”

Not only has this approach positively affected the lives of multiple children, but it has also helped cultivate some exceptional chess players. Josiah Stearman and Sam Shankland, two Berkeley Chess School students, recently received top titles from FIDE, the international governing body of chess competitions. Just before his 11th birthday, Stearman became a national master, an extremely prestigious ranking. Shankland, 22, is a grandmaster – the highest ranking a chess player can attain. He recently won his first individual gold medal in August at the 2014 Chess Olympiad, one of the most prestigious tournaments in the world.

But Shaughnessy’s vision of Berkeley Chess School was never about producing winners, though that sometimes happens as a byproduct.

“It’s never been my aim to get Sam Shankland to win a golden medal at the Olympiad as a grandmaster. I’m thrilled that he did it, and I’m pleased as punch that he’s our student, but that’s not why I do it,” she said. “I do it to try to make better citizens.”

Chess can truly change the way a child thinks and develops, which can enable them to develop imperative life skills, a side effect that both Shankland and Stearman have experienced for themselves.

“(Chess) taught me to process information quickly, think under pressure, cope with adversity and learn to win and lose like a champion,” Shankland said.

“It really has made me more persistent,” Stearman added. Concentrating on this, instead of simply producing winners, is what sets Berkeley Chess School apart.

“First and foremost, (Berkeley Chess School’s) goal is to introduce kids to chess and fuel that passion,” Shankland said. “They raise kids to the love game.”

Contact Claralyse Palmer at [email protected].