SAN FRANCISCO — A retired special education teacher recently named coordinator of the San Francisco Archdiocese’s African American ethnic ministry sees chess as an academic, social and spiritual game changer for students today.
“When we speak about the philosophy of chess, I look at it just like life and how we discern and make decisions,” Chris Major told Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocesan newspaper, during a visit to St. Raphael School Sept. 14.
A half dozen third graders stared intently at chess boards as two sixth graders jumped around a super-sized chess board rolled out on the school’s library floor. Major sat across from some of the players as coach.
The school is the first Catholic school in the archdiocese to host his after-school chess ministry now serving about 50 students in Marin County.
In 2009, Major, launched the Novato Chess Club with a Rotary Club grant to help students from kindergarten through eighth grade become critical and independent thinkers better able to “plan their next move” in life.
He believes the game also helps students learn to communicate with others, be gracious in victory and defeat and deal with the frustration and emotions that the game brings out.
Major, 59, is a former college baseball player at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, who went on to teach special needs high school students before founding Hayward Youth Academy, a nonprofit that offers academic and recreational enrichment programs to Bay Area families.
He came to chess late in life himself and believes the game has much to offer today’s students of all racial, cultural and economic backgrounds.
“We are losing a sense of task-oriented young people with the ability to discern and reason their next move,” he said, and the ability to ask themselves independently what they are going to do next. “We see none of that today.”
Chess helps cultivate internal motivation, among other things.
“If I can get children to sit down like the third graders you see here and play a 40-minute game of chess, those kids are going to be able to sit down on their own and do their homework, review their homework and correct their homework,” he said.
He said that when “you start that engine early with a child,” you develop a self-starter, a self-learner, a person who is goal-oriented and has his own visions and “doesn’t need someone else to dictate what his or her next move will be.”
Still, chess is not just about winning for oneself.
“The language of chess is one of sacrifice,” Major said. “It’s one of being a part of a team for the goal of checkmating the other king but you can’t do that by yourself. You need the other pieces on the board to help.”
Major was raised Catholic and attended St. Bede High School in Hayward, California, before a baseball scholarship took him to St. Mary’s College and later the University of San Francisco, where he earned a credential in special education.
He was first exposed to chess in the 1990s at Skyline High School in Oakland, where he taught emotionally disturbed kids, more than 70% of them African American. Many, he said, were “crack babies” born out of the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s with an “inability to connect with the human world.”
The school had a game playing schedule that included chess, something Major admits he thought of at the time as “nonsense” and a “waste of time.”
“My heart was so closed,” he said. “How can chess possibly help these African American kids that can’t even read?”
He didn’t think about chess again until 13 years later when a chance conversation with another man at a baseball game piqued his interest in learning the game. He literally Googled “learning chess,” found a 250-page document from the federal government and taught himself to play.
He founded Novato Chess Club soon after. He said his niche is teaching chess to children of all backgrounds and abilities.
In addition to running his nonprofit and his new appointment as African American ethnic ministry coordinator for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Major is in his fourth year of formation in the permanent diaconate.
“They (the archdiocese) need a face out there right now that speaks about unity,” he said.
Major said his parents raised their children to conform to a society of values that were “normative” and did not want them to be overly engaged in racial identity issues and perpetuating negative stereotypes.
“They always wanted us to act in accordance with right values,” he said. “I think how we show ourselves in our words, our deeds, our gestures and mannerisms are more what we should be defining ourselves than our color.”
Major said that despite that upbringing, he didn’t always live up to that coda.
“I went through a period of my life when I wasn’t that person who my mother would be proud of,” he said.
Major would like to help other Catholic schools start an after-school chess program and envisions an archdiocesan-wide chess tournament. St. Raphael School is hosting a one-hour virtual chess class every Wednesday until Nov. 19. It’s open to any student in the archdiocese
“I can’t do this program by myself,” Major added. “I wouldn’t want to because I think it’s too beautiful to sit in isolation.”
Gray is associate editor of Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.