CMS Budget Cuts Leave Chess Clubs Down and Out
Association is trying to raise $50,000 through grants, sponsorships, donations

Mark Price
Photo by Erin Smith
August 29, 2010

In a cash-strapped school district where it seems everything is on the chopping block, the chess club moved across a board of borrowed time.

This year, for the first time in more than two decades, CMS is not footing the bill for part-time chess coaches for dozens of school clubs.

The clubs themselves can soldier on, but many chess advocates say that will be tough.

"It's like a football team without a coach," says 12th-grader Enrique Garcia, president of the club at West Charlotte High. "Yeah, we can still be members. But if there's no coach, how do you improve your game? It won't be the same."

Last school year, the district paid the nonprofit Charlotte-Mecklenburg Scholastic Chess Association $75,000 to hire chess masters and experts to visit more than 100 schools twice a month.

CMS officials say they don't have the money this term, leaving the association scrambling for a way to continue the coaching, even if only in a scaled-back form.

Rose Yen, president of the association, says a campaign is being mounted to raise $50,000 through sponsorships, donations and grants. Ultimately, she says, the group hopes to strengthen its mission by becoming less dependent on one source for money.

"We have some money in the bank, and we're trying to see if we can maintain instruction at once-a-month visits," she says. "If we do twice a month, it will empty the account by January."

CMS officials say chess took a financial hit because it is the only school activity that had an outside contract for services.

It is one of countless budget trims the district made this year due to losses in local, state and federal money. That includes laying off hundreds of teachers.

School officials say they're hoping community partners will step up and provide help for chess clubs affected by the cuts. That's how coaching was handled last year at nearly 60 other district schools, where volunteers were enlisted or coaches were hired by PTAs, booster clubs and other community partners.

"We're there for those schools that can't afford it otherwise," said Yen of the chess association. "Our mission is to provide it to anyone who wants coaching regardless of whether the school has money or doesn't have money."

An interest in filling that need is what led a concerned parent to create the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Scholastic Chess Association in 1985. Within three years of forming, the nonprofit had twice been host of the National Elementary Chess Championship.

The group says it earned its first contract with CMS in 1986, and used the money to hire a single chess master, who went school to school.

Last school year, it had six coaches who taught about 1,775 students, including Enrique Garcia.

He says this will be his fourth year in chess club, which he joined after teaching himself with a $10 chess computer program. Games last up to four hours, he says, and involve a lot of patience and a lot of problem solving.

"A whole new world opened up for me," he says. "While others see pieces sitting on a black and white board, I see action. It's not like a computer game, where you see the fighting.

"In chess, you see the action in your head."