Walk into the cafeteria at William James Christian Middle School in South Roebuck on any afternoon, and what you find might surprise you — students playing chess. Lined up across two tables, students compete with each other for one hour each afternoon. Taught by former Washington, D.C. chess champion Charles Smith, this W.J. Christian chess class is a Birmingham rarity.
Charles Smith taught himself how to play chess after watching his brother play in Brooklyn, New York. Exposure to more advanced chess players in Washington, D.C. pushed him to further develop his skills. He became Washington, D.C. Amateur and Thirty Minute Chess Champion and gradually earned his way to the level of Expert. He relocated to Birmingham in 1998.
After living in chess meccas like New York and D.C., Smith wanted to bring the appreciation of chess to his new home in Alabama, a place that was virtually, in his words, a “chess city desert.”
“I missed chess so much,” Smith explained. “Being a chess player, I looked long term and thought maybe in two years these young kids that I’m teaching will start to play in tournaments and will make chess happen in Birmingham. So I started the program just to make chess popular and try to start a chess community in Birmingham.”
W.J. Christian offers chess as an elective, but the course is certainly not a relaxed and free environment. Smith demands concentration and discipline in his class. “Most people bring me children not for chess but for discipline. Their children will be better disciplined in the way they think by learning chess,” he said.
During class, Smith keeps a watchful eye on all of his students. He circles the tables, commenting on each game, while maintaining order and respect in his class. “I coach chess like a football coach,” Smith admitted, “because I’m standing over them and watching them. It’s an involved teaching process that’s all about discipline.”
Smith created his own methods for his classes. Part of his success is drawing in students to the game who may have had no affinity for it at first. “When I first started teaching, nobody knew about chess so there was no interest in chess at all,” Smith said. “Somehow, I’m able to gain the students’ interest in the game. I manage to get through because I love the game and I pass on the love to them.”
One of the initial methods Smith uses is “the matrix,” which he describes as “a movement of the pieces for a four-move checkmate. It presents certain problems on both sides that allow the students to learn fast. That’s the way chess occurred to me when I learned as a child. It’s a way to play the pieces that no one taught me.”
Smith realizes chess is more than the simple act of achieving checkmate. Through chess, Smith hopes to prepare his students for the future. “College professors are very frustrated because the students can do the work but wonder if they can think on their feet,” Smith said. “That’s what chess is doing; it’s teaching them to think outside the box to figure out the best options.”
According to Smith, chess improves math and reading skills along with self-confidence and concentration. “One thing this country needs is engineers and mathematicians and scientists. Secondly, we need people that can think outside the box,” Smith explained. “Chess requires you to think about the consequences of your moves and deal with the results of your bad or good decisions, just like in life. Chess will make better citizens for Birmingham and the country.”
Charles Smith’s methods have produced state champions. W.J. Christian has won the Alabama State Scholastic Team and Individual Chess Championship for two consecutive years. For four consecutive years, a W.J. Christian student has been the top chess player in the junior high division in the state. Students have also placed 4th and 8th in the national competition during Smith’s career there.
The students enjoy the environment of the chess class. During an afternoon’s course, one student, Sunetria Edmond, said, “It can get competitive, but you know everyone and we’re all friends.”
Classmate and tournament champion Cantrell Young agreed: “I get respect around here all the time.” Fellow champion Chryshawn Parker likes Smith’s methods the most. “I haven’t experienced anyone like him in his attitude and his personality,” Chryshawn said. “He’s up front, but I think he’s cool.”
Sunetria, Chryshawn and Cantrell like the class for the other benefits as well. “I tell my friends all the time that chess is the best thing in the world. It improves your math and reading skills,” Sunetria said.
Chryshawn pointed out the analytical benefits. “I like the strategies,” she said. “It helps you think and helps you become a better thinker. You stay focused on what you’re doing.”
All three students said they have seen improvements in their math and reading grades and ability to focus. “My grades have gotten better. I just focus better,” Cantrell said.
Cantrell, Sunetria and Chryshawn hope to continue to develop their skills throughout high school. “I’ll still play in tournaments and go to his classes at the downtown library,” Chryshawn said.
Smith is not only involved at W.J. Christian but also throughout Birmingham. Through his organization Magic City Chess U, Smith teaches at other schools, including Indian Springs and Phillips Academy. With the slogan “Changing Lives One Mind at a Time,” Smith plans to turn Birmingham into a chess mecca. Smith also provides free chess lessons at the Birmingham Public Library on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. “I wish more students would come down and take advantage of that,” Smith said, “especially the city kids.”
Smith realizes the times have changed since he learned chess 40 years ago. “The video games were just starting,” Smith recalled. “I could sit down with a book and teach myself chess. But children now aren’t very willing to do that because we’re so fast, and it’s just hard to get a new crowd to love the game.”
Smith hopes to bridge this gap with his own book. “I think I have a better instructional manual to be put in a chess set that you might buy in the store. We’re losing too many children because chess is a technical game to learn.” Smith hopes to reach a broader audience with his book. “Chess is an old game that needs to be modernized, and I think I’m the guy to change it all. We’ve been doing it the same way for a hundred years and we’re not a hundred years back anymore the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live.”
For more information, email Charles Smith at on chess at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://magiccitychessu.blogspot.com.