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Mobile chess academy teaches young girls to strengthen their minds

It took Bryanna Ely four moves and just 90 seconds to beat her opponent last month at a national chess tournament in Chicago. It marked the first time Buffalo sent a team to compete in the All-Girls National Chess Championships tournament, described by chess great Garry Kasparov as “the apex of scholastic chess competitions in the United States.”

Bryanna, 13, who lost four straight games before her slam-dunk win in Chicago, is a shining example of what can happen when chess becomes part of a young life.

“It’s something that came into my life and I like it,” she said. “I was horrible at math, and now I understand math completely. My math grade was a 2.5, and it’s gone up to a 3.5.”

Bryanna’s success and the success of Buffalo team, Urban Queens, can be largely attributed to Michael A. McDuffie, who for 17 years has taught hundreds of children from kindergarten through high school the power of chess. His Archangel 8 Chess Academy is dedicated to advancing young lives, one game at a time.

“It helps with mind development. It helps them create a plan. Some kids don’t even know what a plan is,” said McDuffie. “Chess transcends social barriers and builds rapport between young people and adults. Students develop patience, attentiveness, self-discipline and resilience.”

Chess has been incorporated into the curricula in schools in approximately 30 nations including Brazil, China, Venezuela, Italy, Israel, Russia and Greece, according to the Susan Polgar Association.

“Test scores improved by 17.3 percent for students regularly engaged in chess classes, compared with only 4.6 percent for children participating in other forms of enriched activities,” said four-time world champion Polgar, the only woman to beat Kasparov.

McDuffie would like to see chess taught locally as part of a child’s academic study. And the movement is beginning to gain traction among his students and their parents.

An eighth-grader at Tapestry Charter School, Bryanna attends chess classes Fridays after school with the Irish Buffaloes at the Old First Ward Community Center.

McDuffie’s traveling chess academy visits various community centers, schools and libraries where children are taught to play through a series of mini-games created by the coach to help younger students learn faster.

“A lot of people tell me they want to learn chess but they don’t know how, so I thought of games where they would only focus on one piece at a time,” said McDuffie. “I start with two pawns and I introduce the children to the names of the pieces and the squares. When they move the piece they have to say which square they moved it to. It connects them to the game.”

McDuffie has conducted his chess academy, which is affiliated with the United States Chess Federation, first at the old Jefferson Library and then at Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library, both on Jefferson Avenue. He also coaches at Audubon Library in Amherst, Lockport Family YMCA and Gloria J. Parks Community Center.

He estimated that 90 percent of his students were male. That began to change a few years ago, when girls began showing up to learn.

Last year, McDuffie founded “Girls in Chess Rock,” an after-school club for girls in Erie and Niagara counties. It started just weeks ago at Aloma Johnson Charter School on Jewett Parkway, when a “dream team” was formed of mostly second-grade girls who could be the next team to compete in Chicago.

On a recent Wednesday, members of the team reported for chess class at the Jewett Parkway school, where games were played with pink pieces on roll-up chess boards carried like a yoga mat with an over-the-shoulder strap.

Ary’ana Griffin, 8, described what she has learned by playing chess:

“When I watch my opponents’ move, I think in my head sometimes about what they might do next,” said Ary’ana. “It’s kind of interesting because you get to know what people are thinking when they move the pieces.”

Rayven Jones, 8, walked away from chess last year, but decided to give it another try.

“I used to be into chess when I was 7, but I quit for a few days,” she explained. “It was difficult, very difficult.”

As the girls sit in swivel chairs, they spun like whirling dervishes in the school’s board room. Those soaring energy levels are one reason McDuffie starts class with a five-minute drill to chill children. They call it the cool down.

Rayven described the process.

“Coach tells us to put our heads down on the table, close our eyes and think about what we’re going to do. If we talk too loud we do it again,” she said. “That’s how we get cooled down for chess. We breathe in through our nose and out through our mouth.”

By offering chess as an after-school activity, David V. Bouie, academic director of the charter school, believed young lives can be enriched.

“Chess is a great thing that helps activate the brain and connect synapses,” he said. “It helps them calm down and concentrate in their classes. Playing chess teaches them patience.”

At age 10, Antoinette Marshall is an Urban Queen who competed in Chicago this year. She is a fifth-grader at Olmsted at Kensington in the Gifted and Talented program. She likes Barbie dolls, wants to be a veterinarian or marine biologist and designs clothes. For the past three years, Antoinette has studied chess.

“My daughter has been diagnosed with hyperactive ADHD,” said her mother, Cynthia Marshall. “She has a 96.7 average. She plays cello, but to play chess settles her down and conditions her mind to focus, prioritize and strategize. She’s a visual learner.”

Michael and Myoshi Aubain are chemical engineers who moved to Buffalo two years ago with their daughters Victoria and Angelina, who today are 7 and 8, respectively. The sisters attend St. Gregory the Great school in Williamsville, but travel to the city to study chess at Aloma Johnson.

“Being a female engineer, just seeing that science and mathematics typically are not where we steer our young girls, I was really looking for activities and outlets they could be involved in so we can get their minds developed in that way,” said Myoshi Aubain.

“Since we’ve been in the program, I certainly see an increase in their raw focus,” Myoshi Aubain said. “They’re great mathematicians. I think it’s because we’re getting them involved in programs like this. It’s nice to see girls take an active interest and not be forced.”

Watch the chess girls in action during the “Civil War to Civil Rights” tournament starting at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the food court at Main Place Mall, 424 Main St. This is a four-game event sanctioned by the chess federation. For more information, email