Thursday, January 10, 2013


Somebody (maybe it was Ann Landers) observed that we don't get to choose the circumstances into which we're born. Instead, we're thrown into the world, and we have to learn to cope with our situation.

I attended grammar school in Sanford, N.C. In the summer between second and third grade, I somehow became interested in chess. My mother took me to the public library, where I read all the beginners' books. I even played in the 1967 U.S. Junior Open in Raleigh and the 1968 state championship in Wilmington. But by today's standards, I was a terrible player. Sanford's chess club met on Tuesdays, and I was allowed to attend a couple of evenings, but no adult had any interest in playing or teaching a child. So I stopped going.

When I was 10 years old, my parents separated. We moved in with my grandparents in Shamokin, Pa., an Appalachian anthracite mining town in decline. My mother worked as a third-shift nurse's aide in the county home for the elderly; when my grandparents could no longer take the stress of living with four children, we moved into a public housing project. As a teen, I developed serious health problems: first Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, then grand mal epilepsy. I expected to attend college, but our poverty and my chronic illness made me wonder how realistic I was being.

But Shamokin had a chess club that welcomed children, and it was only there that I became a decent player. I learned from Rev. Bingaman, a top amateur player who was kind enough to allow me to win on occasion; Mr. Tasker, a retired businessman; Mr. Myers, a local insurance agent; Mr. Dombrowski, a merchant marine from Brooklyn who had excellent technique in rook endings; Mr. Reed, our high school coach, who had a wide circle of tournament-playing friends; Dan Polastre, first board for our school's arch-rival, Our Lady of Lourdes; and many others. Our club played matches against Bloomsburg and Hazleton, and the adults frequently took me to tournaments in Harrisburg, Allentown, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The skills I learned from chess helped me succeed in my various interests: first science (I was accepted at MIT), then business (I'm a partner in a Loop accounting firm) and the humanities (I have a Ph.D. in American literature and taught for several years at Loyola Chicago).

Enough about me. There are 2.7 million people in Chicago; more than 620,000 of them are children. Thirty percent of these children live in poverty. Of these, at least 90,000 live in "deep poverty," with family income at only 50 percent of poverty level. Add substandard schools, the drug economy and gang violence: suddenly, my childhood seems idyllic in comparison.

There may be hundreds of paths for Chicago's children to escape the situation into which they've been thrown. Chess is one such path, and it works. A chess center in Chicago will provide a safe, chaperoned place for children (and adults) to learn how to think analytically, to form hypotheses, test them, reject them, reformulate.

Of course, children who learn to cope with problems on the chessboard won't find that the streets of Chicago have become magically unproblematic. But chess teaches many of the skills these young people need to succeed in our postindustrial information economy. I expect young leaders like Pobo Efekoro (featured in the amazing chess documentary Brooklyn Castle), not only to cope with reality but to transform it in coming years.

Many people are already doing the good work of chess instruction in school and in after-school programs. If the Chicago Chess Center can contribute to the good work already being done to help young people, even if only for a handful of the hundreds of thousands who need our help, I'd consider that a partial repayment of the debt I owe to the adults who helped me. As long as we keep our doors open, I promise you that we will never turn away a child with a passion to learn.

So far, with just over a week left in our fundraising campaign, we've raised less than 20 percent of the $30,000 we need to open our doors in May. The Chicago Chess Center is a 501(c)(3) organization; your tax-deductible support can change lives. Please give generously now.

Thanks for your time,

Bill Brock
Secretary/Treasurer, Chicago Chess Center NFP Inc.

P.S. You'll also have yet another venue for tournament play and skittles
a more mundane but equally valid reason to give now.


Ch1cag0Rob said...

Nice post! You got me. I just contributed. I had to wait until after the honeymoon (mine, not the Chess Center's).

Bill Brock said...

Many years of happiness to the two of you!

Bill Brock said...

P.S. comparing my personal history to the challenges faced by today's kids:
I was fortunate to attend outstanding public schools in both North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Despite the best efforts of parents and CPS teachers, many Chicago children aren't as fortunate.