Kids learning about chess, strategies for bigger board of life
Initiative inspired by instructor's experience at Million Man March
By JAMAAL ABDUL-ALIM
After having what he describes as a "life-altering experience" at the Million Man March, Quan Caston, a former U.S. Air Force reconnaissance photographer, returned from Washington, D.C., with a desire to make a difference in Milwaukee's black community.
Quan Caston uses chess to teach children about how to become effective decision-makers
During a recent program at Milwaukee’s Center Street Library, Quan Caston uses chess to teach children about how to become effective decision-makers at home and in the community. A former Air Force reconnaissance photographer, Caston has founded Chess Academix.
(From left) Devonte Laird, Timothy Sheppard and Nakia Washington
Volunteering to answer questions during a session on chess are (from left) Devonte Laird, Timothy Sheppard and Nakia Washington. “I like how it feels, making choices and stuff,” Sheppard says.
You can think like a chess player out here on these
- Quan Caston,
Chess Academix founder
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The end result was Chess Academix, an initiative that started as a tutoring program for "at-risk" children and has since evolved into a business that Caston is expanding nationwide.
As local organizers rally support for another Million Man March this October to mark the 10-year anniversary of the 1995 march, they say Caston represents just one example of how the march can be a catalyst for change.
Minister William Muhammad, local representative of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, architect of the march, says that while many measure the march's impact in terms of how many men attended, what is immeasurable is the positive effect the attendees had on their families and communities when they returned.
Muhammad says one of the aims of the next Million Man March is to spark a renewed interest in confronting the various issues that the black community faces.
"We hope to infuse the black community as well as America with energy that we can use to tackle some of the complex problems of the black community," Muhammad says. Caston, he says, is one example of what that looks like in action.
To appreciate what Caston does, consider a session he held one Saturday at Center Street Library, 2727 W. Fond du Lac Ave.There, a visitor found Caston, 36, and a few of his comrades teaching a dozen children about not only the game of chess but also what Caston says is often referred to as "the game of life."
"You can think like a chess player out here on these streets," Caston tells a dozen youths enrolled in his program.
"A seasoned chess player does not move chess pieces just because he or she can," Caston says. "He or she moves it because it's the best move he or she can think of at the time."
Similarly, Caston tells the youths, as they make moves in life, they need to "concentrate on the rewards and consequences" of their actions.
As the name of his program suggests, Caston's lessons delve into academic subjects as well.
For example, with respect to math, he tells the children to think of the chessboard as an algebraic graph with coordinates and to make note of the numerical value of each chess piece.
With respect to history, he tells the children that chess was created by black people in ancient Egypt. As evidence, he points to a well-known drawing from ancient Egypt that features senet, a board game considered a forerunner to modern chess.
Making good choices
Caston has created an 1,100-page curriculum for his program. In it, he relates the pieces on the chessboard to various elements of society.
The rook represents the home. The bishop represents spirituality. The knight represents law enforcement. The pawns represent the common people.
Though valued at only one point each, pawns are important, Caston says, because they help defend more valuable pieces and, once they reach the last row of an opponent's territory, can become more valuable themselves.
Similarly, Caston tells the children, they can become more powerful in life if they reach their goals.
The lessons resonate with youngsters such as Timothy Sheppard, 13, a seventh-grader at Sarah Scott Middle School.
"I like how it feels making choices and stuff," Sheppard says, referring to the sense of power he feels while moving chess pieces across the board. "You have to make good choices like you do every day outside."
His mother, Charlene Edgelston, says she appreciates Caston because her son needs more positive male figures in his life and because chess is "keeping him out of trouble."
Participation in the program, sponsored in part by area businesses, such as Lena's Grocery Store, is free. Children get their own chess sets, dictionaries to expand their vocabularies and other materials that teach them how to play the game of chess.
Caston also teaches the children how to play "inverted chess," a version in which the board is rotated so that a black corner square is at the player's right hand and the black pieces are on the offensive. It's part of a kind of racial awareness that heightened in Caston's mind when he found himself playing against a student who did not want to use the white pieces.
"There are advantages to being white," Caston says he told the student, not realizing the double meaning the words seemed to hold until he spoke them.
"When I said that, it just resonated in my mind. This kid said, 'I don't care. I just don't want to be white.' "
Through inverted chess, black moves first, essentially putting the black pieces in the same position that the white pieces usually are without altering the dynamics of the game.
In many ways, Caston and his comrades are doing the same thing for black youths. They are grooming them to become masters of their own destinies so that when these children grow up and go out into the world, they'll be in a better position to succeed at the game of life.