Berkeley Chess School struggles financially amid pandemic

child playing chess
Claralyse Palmer/File
Chess can help children "become critical thinkers, attentive, confident students and productive citizens," according to Elizabeth Shaughnessy, founder of the Berkeley Chess School.

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First started as an after-school enrichment class in 1982 at Oxford Elementary School, the Berkeley Chess School has since grown into a Bay Area institution, serving 125 schools and more than 7,000 students yearly but is now financially struggling due to the coronavirus.

According to founder Elizabeth Shaughnessy, the school’s mission is to bring the joys of chess to as many people as possible, paying special attention to women and girls and raising funds for free chess instruction. The school’s headquarters in West Berkeley serve as a chess center for the entire Bay Area, where classes and tournaments are held and where the school expects to host a world chess championship for youths with disabilities in 2022.

“Chess is the perfect antidote to the frustration of life without the stimulus of the normal activities we all need,” Shaughnessy said in an email. “It is a game that has not been solved. It constantly challenges the mind.” 

However, COVID-19 has had a severe impact on the chess school. Shaughnessy emphasized how in “literally one day,” school closures and shelter-in-place orders caused the school to go from a viable organization to one with zero income.

Luckily, it has survived by relying on its rainy day fund and replacing its in-person instruction with online classes. It hopes to increase its online programs to the point that it still reaches the same number of students as it did pre-pandemic.

Yet, Shaughnessy said the school is working at a fraction of the size of its pre-pandemic program.

“Our 45 (person) teaching staff went from having work to being unemployed. Office staff was greatly reduced,” Shaughnessy said in the email.

The chess school received a grant from the city of Berkeley, a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan. 

Shaughnessy said the school has never been funded by the wealthy and that she wonders if it would have survived without such government assistance. Right now, she said, the chess school is struggling to stay financially solvent.

“We have been helping children now for almost 40 years to play the game of kings which has the wonderful side effect of helping them become critical thinkers, attentive, confident students and productive citizens,” Shaughnessy said in the email.

When asked about the pandemic’s impact on the future of chess, Shaughnessy pointed out the possibility that online chess will spread interest and involvement in the game.

She said in the email that she anticipates the school going back to in-person classes because there is “nothing quite like over the board play,” but added that the school would continue to get groups of players together online to serve those in the community who choose to play that way.

“(Chess) is a skill that once learned will stay with you for life,” Shaughnessy said in the email.

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @zara_khanDC.