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Chess Grandmasters Make Moves on Rahm, CPS

By Ted Cox | September 24, 2013 6:49am
 Marshall High School math teacher Joseph Ocol has been coaching the Marshall-Faraday chess team since 2006. The Illinois Chess Association wants to take a program citywide. (File Photo)
Marshall High School math teacher Joseph Ocol has been coaching the Marshall-Faraday chess team since 2006. The Illinois Chess Association wants to take a program citywide. (File Photo)
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DNAinfo/Justin Breen

CITY HALL — The city's top chess players are kibitzing on a proposed chess program for Chicago Public Schools.

According to the Illinois Chess Association, which has offered to create the independent program for CPS, four Chicago-area grandmasters want to meet with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett in an attempt to advance the proposal.

According to the association, the letter signed by grandmasters Mesgen Amanov, Dmitry Gurevich, Yury Shulman and Alexander Goldin, states: "All of us have walked difficult paths and overcome obstacles in working our way up in the chess world. All foreign born, we have dealt with discrimination and hardship and have learned many of life's difficult lessons.

"We have also come to know intimately the benefits that accrue to those who commit themselves to difficult tasks, maintain their focus and concentration, and learn to deal with adversity and loss. We are committed to passing on some of those lessons to Chicago's schoolchildren, including those who are less fortunate and who could benefit the most from the great potential of chess.

"The time is right to add chess to your list of accomplishments," the letter adds, "and we stand ready to help."

The Mayor's Press Office issued a statement in response, saying, "The city and CPS have long been supportive of creating a strong, independent chess program available to students of all backgrounds and would be interested in meeting with any chess provider or engaged stakeholder who could make this potential partnership a reality."

CPS spokeswoman Keiana Barrett added that the school system supports the expansion of chess programs across the city.

"We are willing to consider proposals that provide transparency, clear oversight and a sensible financing plan," she said.

The chess association has offered to create and fully fund a citywide chess program, but has insisted on autonomy from CPS, while working within the school system, as does the Chicago Debate League.

"There's not a soul in the chess world who thinks CPS can do a program on its own," said Jerry Neugarten, chairman of the chess association's youth committee.

The association quoted fundraiser Jeff Joseph, a managing partner at Prescient Capital Partners, as saying, "The private community continues to tell us it will financially support an independent program seeking to introduce chess across the city and aiming at excellence."

There have been conflicts between the association and private chess firms that have been seeking to create a smaller, less ambitious program for first- through third-graders called First Move at 30 CPS schools.

In fact, David Heiser, president of the Renaissance Knights Chess Foundation and a CPS Sports Department chess consultant, immediately responded to the grandmasters' public letter by offering them volunteer positions.

The grandmasters rebuffed that offer in a letter from their volunteer coordinator, Kiran Frey, who wrote: "In the grandmasters' letters to the mayor and CEO, they have offered to play a constructive role in planning and helping to build a strong new program in Chicago that would make the city truly competitive. The program they envision would be independent of CPS, so that the chess program is not a financial or a human-resource burden for CPS.

"The grandmasters are prepared to make contributions in a manner befitting their status," Frey said. "That is different from their filling vacant coaching positions at Renaissance Knights. We need a sound infrastructure that supports their role as being able to bring excellence to chess programs in Illinois."