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Chess Clubs Give Kids New Skills...
And New Hope!

Curriculum Center

Volunteers are teaching members of the Young Masters Chess Club in Reno, Nevada, how to play the game of chess -- and much more! Chess is a tool for teaching other skills as well, such as concentration and critical thinking. And it can help build student self-esteem. Indeed, it's a game that can change kids' lives! Included: Links to great chess Web sites and other chess resources.



As you window-shop on Saturday at the Park Lane Mall in Reno, Nevada, you might notice a group of tables set up in the main mall. There, you will see children and adults gathered around, staring intently at chessboards. Those young people -- enjoying the strategy and thought going into each game -- are members of the Young Masters Chess Club. They're playing this centuries-old game thanks to Project Chess, a program of the Washoe County School District and run by a group of very dedicated volunteers. Image

Project Chess is the brainchild of Irene Dixon-Darnell, a caring woman who dedicates her life to helping others. Around the chess center at the Park Lane Mall, Dixon-Darnell is known as the "Chess Lady" or, more affectionately, "Nana."

Ten years ago, Dixon-Darnell began teaching chess to youngsters as part of a latchkey program in one of Reno's at-risk schools. She has found that kids love the game, and as they play, they show considerable concentration and thought.

" We see attitude change. The kids [in the club] mellow out, and they're more considerate," Dixon-Darnell told Education World.

Teachers notice differences too. They find that students who have been part of the chess club exhibit higher-order thinking skills. Those kids understand how to break down problems into parts, how to be critical problem solvers.



Not long after Dixon-Darnell began teaching chess in the latchkey program, she started teaching another chess group and another and another. Today, she runs Project Chess, which is funded by a variety of grants, including one from the Nevada Bureau of Alcohol & Drug Abuse. Officials of the bureau believe chess gives kids an alternative to drugs and after school gangs.

"We sweat out our grants every year. We never know if we're going to get them or not," Dixon-Darnell said of the money that supports her efforts.

For ten weeks, Project Chess volunteers go into Washoe County classrooms once a week where they teach children for two hours. The volunteer corps reaches 1,800 to 2,000 fifth and sixth graders in 12 to 14 Reno schools each year. All that is accomplished with a team of three to four volunteers!

Each two-hour school lesson consists of one hour of hands-on instruction supported with a ten-minute video lesson, ten minutes of lesson-related reading in the students' chess booklets, whole-class demonstrations of the lesson, and small-group peer practice. The chess classes link to many facets of the curriculum -- from higher-order thinking skills to math, science, reading, and even English as a second language.

Dixon-Darnell says the children not only develop critical thinking skills but also show more self-esteem and self-worth as a result of learning the game. They become better sports too. "They learn to think before they move -- and that's a lesson in life," Dixon-Darnell added.

Joe Sanford, a physics teacher at Manogue High School in Reno, recently visited the chess center with his son Paul and Paul's friend Ryan. Sanford has seen a difference in Paul's participation in all areas of sports and school since he began playing chess. "Paul appreciates the fundamental set of rules in chess and that they are adhered to," Sanford told Education World.

"It's a game that keeps you entertained, and I like that," Paul said.

"You don't use only strategy but also tactics to get your enemy's pieces," Ryan added.



The kids love the program. Many students keep in touch with their instructors long after they've left school. Dixon-Darnell talks regularly with one of her original students, who is now attending Stanford University.

The project reaches students in regular and special education classes. Dixon-Darnell says she often sees great improvement in special students' abilities to focus and concentrate for more than a few minutes a time after they have learned the game.

Many students continue to participate in the program after they have finished school and gone on to college, Dixon-Darnell added. The tables and the new chess center in the Park Lane Mall are just two of the places where graduates from the project can play and continue building their skills.

Dixon-Darnell also sponsors four tournaments a year at the Boy's and Girl's Clubs in Reno and nearby Sparks.



Image The more you hear about Project Chess, the more you understand that Dixon-Darnell is a woman on a mission. You can hear the passion in her voice as you talk with her about teaching kids how to play chess. She began doing it with her husband, "Grandpa Bill," and now has several dedicated volunteers who love kids and the game of chess.

Dixon-Darnell has won numerous awards for her work, including one of President George Bush's 1000 Points of Light Awards. "I got to meet [President Bush] at the airport and to see Air Force One. It was one of my biggest thrills!" she said.

She's also won teaching awards from Washoe County, even though she's technically not a trained "teacher."

She's kept on with her beloved program, even after personal tragedy struck her life. On September 13, 1999, her husband, Bill, answered the door to their northeast Reno apartment. He was stabbed numerous times by an unknown assailant and died a short time later. The assailant has never been found. Bill left a large family -- he was a great-great grandfather -- and he also left an extended family, thousands of Washoe students who knew him as Grandpa Bill, the chess teacher.

Since the murder, Dixon-Darnell has lived with her daughter, unwilling to return to the apartment she had shared with her husband. Yet, since her husband's death, she has continued to teach school kids how to play chess and dreamed of opening a center where kids could play chess after school.

That dream materialized in November 2000, when the Bill Darnell Memorial Chess Center opened in Park Lane Mall. The center is open Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. On Saturdays, the tables are still set up in the main mall so everyone -- kids and adults alike -- can play chess together.

The center also offers lessons on Friday evenings. For an extremely reasonable cost, kids can learn from a chess master. Families are encouraged to learn the game together, and it's not unusual for several generations of a family to learn the game in those Friday evening classes.

The Chess Lady has changed young people's lives for more than ten years in the Reno area. Yet she doesn't see it that way. "Oh, no. We're the lucky ones. We seniors get to work with these kids. We're the lucky ones," Dixon-Darnell said as she took in the chess center around her.

Dixon-Darnell is truly an inspired and inspiring woman.



You can find out more about chess and how to play with these links and resources: