Rutherford Co. Property Assessor Talks Chess in Schools, First Tournament

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Students from eight Rutherford high schools competed in the inaugural Contest of High School Chess Champions, which was held at Patterson Park Community Center on Saturday, April 20, 2024. (Photo: Rutherford County Schools)

By James Evans

Eight schools participated in the inaugural Rutherford County chess tournament event Saturday, April 20 at the Patterson Park Community Center

Ethan Harrelson of Riverdale won all five games and the overall championship in Saturday’s inaugural Contest of High School Chess Champions. Xavier Sztapka (Rutherford County Virtual School) and Ben Chen (Central Magnet School) finished second and third place, respectively.

Other competitors included Aiden Mauldin (Stewarts Creek), Darren Keoni (LaVergne), Atticus Hiott (Smyrna), Youssef Mekhail (Blackman), and Kenneth Lugo (Oakland).

The event was spearheaded by Rutherford County property assessor Rob Mitchell, who formed a partnership with Rutherford County Schools to provide chess materials to each high school in preparation for the championship.

Mitchell envisions a day when high school students throughout Rutherford County are fluent in the language of chess. He believes a county-wide integrated program will help reduce the need for remedial classes, will help students with their critical-thinking skills, and above all else, prepare them to be problem-solvers for life.

For a little more than a year, Mitchell has been talking to anyone who will listen, to raise money for this grassroots project. His efforts have caught the attention of many, including the state legislature, which invited Mitchell to the state capital to discuss the potential program.

Mitchell participated in an interview with Rutherford County Schools recently to discuss his vision, its origin and his ultimate goal.

QUESTION: You are obviously passionate about chess, tell me why.

Rutherford County Property Assessor Rob Mitchell shows off his Civil War-themed chess set, which features the Union and Confederate armies squaring off, led by Gen. Grant and Gen. Lee as the kings. PHOTO BY BRACKEN MAYO

Mitchell: I started playing chess — my earliest recollection is playing when I was about five or six years old, watching my dad and a good friend of his play chess. So my best friend at the time — who is my dad’s best friend’s son — we picked up and started playing.

As I moved around the country — my dad was in retail, and we’d moved to a different city — chess was always something that I could use, and I did use to kind of fit in with other kids and have something to talk about. I’d ask if they played chess and if they didn’t, I would teach them how to play. So that was kind of a way of me establishing a rapport as a kid with kids that I didn’t know who were from different backgrounds and from all different parts of the country.

I kind of carried chess with me through high school and then through college I played chess in the Rec room over at MTSU and met people that way in between classes.

And then I kind of set it down for a little bit until I started having kids and my kids started going to school. I arranged to have some chess sets sent to Walter Hill (Elementary) when Butch Campbell was principal. And some of the kids picked up and played chess there. Then with Mr. Delbridge over at Siegel Middle School. I had some chess sets ordered up over there, and we had a little chess club on Thursday afternoons that we would meet over in one of the math classrooms and that the kids would play.

Then my kids got into band, and they didn’t want to do chess anymore, so I became a band dad at that point.

QUESTION: I know for at least the past year, you’ve been talking to our School Board members and our director of schools about wanting to expand and do something more. Where did this most recent push come from?

My wife and I were watching a movie on Netflix called Critical Thinking. … We started watching it, and it’s a true story about a chess club, actually it was a class, in a high school in the worst part of town in Miami, Florida.

The story is how this teacher, who is passionate about teaching children that they could think their way to a better place in life, how it was his passion for (chess) and the children understanding the benefits of it.

These kids, many of them, couldn’t even speak English at the time, went and won a national championship in chess. It’s the first time that it ever happened in an inner city school, especially in Miami.

After my wife and I watched the movie … we turned off Netflix and went back to the news and there was something about some kids involved in trouble up in Nashville, and she just looked over at me and said, “Somebody needs to do that here.” (referring to the chess program).

QUESTION: You’ve told me you then reached out to the executive producer of the chess movie for more information and then started looking for sponsors.

I went to Twitter checking the news, and Marcus Lemonis, who is the CEO of Camping World, has his own nonprofit. It’s called “Lemon-Aide,” and he posted a picture of a blank check and said, “If I gave you this, what would you do with it?”

And I just responded, “I would create a critical-thinking and conflict-resolution (chess) program for at-risk children in schools, in Rutherford County schools.”

I didn’t think that much more about it. And then about four or five days later, I woke up on Saturday morning and opened my computer. My Twitter feed had just exploded.

I thought, what in the world is this, nobody ever pays any attention to anything that I say. I started going through the trail of things and at the very end of it is Marcus Lemonis saying, “I’m giving you $5,000 for this program.” That’s when I knew that we were onto something.

So we got the $5,000 and we invited local politicians and community leaders to a chess event in the mid-summer. Two of the school board members, Claire Maxwell and Caleb Tidwell, were there, and we had a couple of county commissioners who showed up, and Dr. Michael McDonald, who’s on the Juvenile Oversight Board for the county, were all there. We had a very successful event, and we raised another five or six hundred, maybe a thousand dollars.

We gifted the money to Rutherford County Schools to purchase the equipment necessary to get this program off the ground.

QUESTION: Branded chess sets and materials have now been delivered to all the schools. What’s your short-term and long-term goal for this initiative?

Well, the short-term goal would be to bring it to the forefront of kids’ understanding that this is something that anybody can do and that there’s benefits to it — long-lasting benefits. I want to give all the kids an opportunity to play if they’re so inclined.

The second step is there is a program that’s put out by FIDE, which is the International Chess Federation, that gives teachers the ability to integrate chess into their current curriculum and lesson plans. That is something that they’re rolling out in Pakistan and there’ll be six million students going through this program within the next year or so. It’s being done in the state of Alabama. It’s being done currently in New Hampshire.

So I would like to have the opportunity to bring that to Rutherford County. I have reached out to the governor’s office and reached out to members of our legislative delegation to keep it on the governor’s highlight list.

If we get it, and it’s successful, (Gov. Lee) would also like to extend that offer to Shelby County so that they could have a pilot program as well. We’d have the ability to work for a couple of years integrating it into our schools and see what the actual results are prior to leading to a wider adoption, I hope, statewide.

QUESTION: So how do you get buy-in from teachers when they’re already asked to do so much?

Well, they wouldn’t have to change their lesson plans, which is the big thing. They would learn how to do it through a professional development class taught by Mr. Jerry Nash, who’s the chairman of education for the International Chess Federation.

Over a two- or three-day period in a workshop, they would learn how to integrate these into their current lesson plans.

They would learn the language of chess because it has its own language. They would be able to integrate that in with their current reading languages, with the current mathematical languages, and with their conflict resolution (lessons). His experience in Alabama was the teachers that were the most reluctant to try it, were the ones that became the largest and biggest advocates for it once they learned and saw the impact of it.

It’s one of those things people tend to be afraid of. But when they actually start doing it, realize it’s not that big of a buy-in. It’s just a tiny little thing, and if the children grasp the information quicker and retain it longer, that means we have to have fewer remediation classes going on or fewer repetitions of the same material over and over again.

QUESTION: Tell me about the tournament you’re hoping to do in April? What’s the plan to get it going?

I know a chess person, a real chess person, is going to say you must have a big tournament at each of the schools. And if the school’s want to do that, I think that’s great. I would encourage it. But I don’t want any school to be left out.

That’s why I said, “You pick who your champion is, however you want to do it.” It could be they have a chess tournament in the school, in between breaks, or one day after school, and then, whoever wins will be that school’s representative.

But I want every high school to have the opportunity to have somebody participate.

Then we’ll have a Swiss-style tournament, which means that certain people will play multiple times, and then whoever has the most points, that school and that individual will be the champion of Rutherford County.

That carries some pride with it because as we continue this the next year, the schools that didn’t win, there’s some pride involved because they didn’t get a trophy. They’ll want to be better prepared, and they’ll take the steps necessary, hopefully, to get there.

And if it’s part of a curriculum that’s being worked into some of their classes, it’s in their mind, so it is kind of a marketing tool right there with it.

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