CITY HALL — The state's top chess agency has been offering for years to totally fund and organize a citywide program in Chicago schools, but the Mayor's Office and Chicago Public Schools have yet to take them up on their offer.
The Illinois Chess Association posted an editorial last week on its website saying it has been offering for years to set up an instruction and competition program in CPS — without asking the cash-strapped school district for a dime. But according to the editorial, it has failed to win support "because of turnover of CPS administrations and senior staff, bureaucratic hurdles and opposition by a few private companies who charge fees for their services."
"CPS has the biggest need, but it's also the toughest nut to crack, and it's partly because of the timidity about a big program," said Jerry Neugarten, chairman of the chess association's Youth Committee.
Neugarten was raised in Hyde Park and is a University of Chicago Laboratory Schools alumnus who went on to a career as a prosecutor in New York City. He moved to Highland Park in 2006, where he now runs a districtwide chess program he would like to see duplicated on a grander scale in the city.
According to Neugarten, the research is abundant on the impact chess instruction can have on students' grades, test scores and overall behavior.
"There are all kinds of life lessons in chess," he said, but primarily it gets youngsters "to slow down and think about their choices."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has championed similar educational initiatives, and the chess association threw his own words back at him in the editorial, quoting a letter he wrote in response to Chicago recently being named Chess City of the Year by the United States Chess Federation.
"It is no secret that learning the fundamentals of chess and playing regularly directly impacts success in the classroom, extracurricular activities and in life," Emanuel wrote. "Chess promotes the important qualities of decision-making and sportsmanship [and] serves players well in their endeavors within a variety of business, professional and academic areas."
Neugarten said that if a good chess program with good instruction is set up, "kids flood into chess."
Yet, where CPS is concerned, that has proved to be a big if.
Neugarten said his group's proposal has been floating around since the Daley administration. And though Emanuel has supported a similar program, the Chicago Debate League, the idea of an autonomous organization running a CPS chess program has not received his blessing.
All the association wants, Neugarten said, is an endorsement from the mayor or CPS so that sponsor money can flow into the school district.
"That's all we want, from one or the other, and then we'll get going on it," Neugarten said.
Suggestions that the association go ahead and do the groundwork and then seek a formal endorsement, he said, aren't realistic.
"Our financing says, look, if there's no buy-in from the city, if it doesn't look like they're really accepting the idea of setting up a first-class program, what are we going to do, try to force it on them afterward?" Neugarten said.
In a statement, the mayor's office said it supports the association and that CPS is exploring the "potential partnership."
"The Mayor’s Office has been engaged and supportive of the Illinois Chess Association and other chess providers' vision for a strong, independent chess program that would be available to students of all backgrounds," the statement said.
The association insists that, with a formal endorsement, it could arrange funding and start a citywide program. It submitted many testimonial letters to the mayor, including one from Eileen Schmakel, mother of Whitney Young Magnet High School chess wunderkind Sam Schmakel, stating: "We will do all the work, we will pay for everything, everyone will love you, and it will look good on your resume."
Whitney Young has won two of the last three state chess championships, while serving as a feeder for the University of Illinois' high-ranking chess team. Yet it's done so on its own, without CPS support.
"What the city needs, and will not get with its current approach, is 100 Whitney Youngs," the editorial stated.
"I don't know if that's an attainable goal," said Paul Kash, Whitney Young's chess coach. The Whitney Young team has been built through years of concentrated effort, he said, and with very little outside help from CPS.
Kash started at Curie High School in 1997, when the team would typically arrange an after-school match with Kelly High School or other schools.
"There's no school matches anymore," he said. "There's no budget for a bus anymore."
Kash also coached at Evanston Township High School before returning to the city at Whitney Young nine years ago, and he saw how suburban schools were spending $15,000 a year on stipends for the chess team.
"From a suburban standpoint, chess is just booming in Illinois," he said. "And from a Chicago standpoint, it's gone from a reasonably decent standpoint to nothing."
He said only a few teams, such as Marshall-Faraday and Kelly, have even managed to survive on their own.
It's not just a budget crunch.
"I hate to blame everything on money," Kash said. "I think there has been just some basic neglect involved. They didn't prioritize chess in any way."
According to a CPS response, the district formed a committee with the Mayor's Office and the U.S. Chess Federation six months ago, and they developed a pilot program to begin next week. Called First Move, it will target first- through third-graders and offer instruction an hour a week at about 30 schools — much less ambitious than the chess association's plan.
"It's not as ready to roll out as they claim it is," a CPS spokesman said.
Neugarten, however, points to the success of similar privately funded programs in Philadelphia and New York City, which remains the acknowledged titan of scholastic chess with 23,000 players, compared with about 1,500 in Chicago.
He said CPS doesn't have the resources to support a chess program, adding, "Since discretionary money for principals now has dried up too, I don't know how they'll have any funds to pay for after-school programs."
Kash said any citywide chess program might need to grow more organically in Chicago, yet he endorsed the association's approach.
"Something is better than nothing," Kash said. "And we hope that, if [the association] ever took over, all of those dreams Jerry has will come to fruition."