In the foreground, Jamarius Daniels, left, and Jordan McShane, both 12, face each other across a chess board after school April 30 at Columbus Middle School. Behind them, Keely Washington, 13, plays a game with chess instructor Isaac Miller of Columbus. Miller hopes to introduce as many young players as possible in local schools to the benefits and enjoyment of chess. Jamarius is the son of Lola Daniels. Jordan is the son of Quatrecia McShane. Keely is the daughter of Albert and Tashonda Washington Sr. Photo by: Laura Daniels/Special to The Dispatch
Tyreon Bankhead, right, a senior at Columbus High School, practices chess moves with school choral director and avid chess enthusiast Doug Browning Wednesday.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
Isaac Miller teaches young players about game openings and strategies after-hours at Columbus Middle School April 30. Miller tops the U.S. Chess Federation roster as the highest rated player in Mississippi.
Photo by: Laura Daniels/Special to The Dispatch
May 4, 2019 10:01:16 PM
Jamarius Daniels stared intently at the chess board in front of him. The seventh-grader propped his elbow on the table, his hand motionless in the air as he considered battle plans and risks. After a quiet moment, he began snapping his fingers.
"I have a plan," he murmured. Snap, snap, snap.
"What is it?" his opponent asked hopefully, leaning in.
"I'm not tellin' you," Jamarius answered, with a sidelong grin.
Both of the youngsters who attend Columbus Middle School could be out doing anything else at 4:30 p.m. on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. But they've chosen to spend it in the school library, learning an ancient game essentially unchanged for more than 1,000 years.
"Because it's brainwork," 12-year-old Jamarius said readily.
"I like the challenge," remarked player Keely Washington, 13.
"Because I want to beat people and get revenge -- and because they have snacks!" quipped six-grader Jordan McShane with a lively smile.
In reality, since February the kids have explored the world of pawns, knights, bishops, rooks, queens and kings because chess mentor Isaac Miller cares enough to be there for them. He's on a mission to introduce as many young people as possible to the royal game that has fascinated him since childhood.
Miller began learning the basics at age 5.
"My father taught me how the pieces move and gave me books," he said of his early exposure to chess while growing up in Mobile, Alabama. At 13, he played in his first rated game. It transformed his perspective.
"My competitiveness took over," Miller said. "I started to study hard, practiced and started up the ranks. I'd study about 20 hours a week. When I was 20 years old, I was No. 18 in the country for people under 21."
Even today, though he may only participate in a couple of sanctioned tournaments per year -- he used to go to several per month -- Miller is ranked by the U.S. Chess Federation in the top 400 players in the country, out of many thousands. He is the highest rated player in Mississippi and has earned the titles of Original Life Master, National Master and Life Master.
The game has opened doors for him throughout his life. He believes every young person deserves that opportunity.
Miller relocated from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Columbus one year ago after his brother Nathan, a retired Air Force colonel, settled here. That was also when Miller stepped away from an 18-year career practicing law to follow a passion for teaching chess.
"When I looked around, I saw there wasn't much chess here, at least that I was aware of," said Miller. He soon contacted every school in Lowndes County about offering chess. In the past four months, he has begun working weekly or twice weekly with interested students who attend the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, which had an established program in place, Annunciation Catholic School, Columbus Middle School and Columbus High School. He hopes more will soon join the initiative.
At Columbus High, Miller found a fellow chess enthusiast in choral director Doug Browning. Browning had wanted to see a chess group organized at the school for a couple of years. During free time or in occasional spare minutes, he sometimes taught curious teens chess basics. One was senior Tyreon Bankhead.
"At first, he lost and lost, but I could tell he was going home and researching strategies; then it wasn't so easy to beat him," Browning said. "A couple of days ago, he beat me twice in a row. I was really happy to see it, because I didn't take it easy on him."
Bankhead is active in the chess group Miller and Browning work with after school. So is 10th-grader David Sloan.
"When I first got into chess, I was a little skeptical at first because I thought it would be pretty boring," the 16-year-old said. "But after I learned the rules, I started catching on. I kinda got it!"
Now Sloan, Bankhead and other teens gather on Thursdays to learn about openings, patterns and famous checkmates. They're going online between weekly meetings to study and practice.
"It's kinda hard to find people in Columbus to play, but there's a real variety of things you can learn -- it's always about strategy," Sloan said.
Learning to think strategically is a chess benefit parent Nichole Cancellare likes. Her children, second-grader Amy and fourth-grader James, attend the chess group at Annunciation Catholic School twice weekly and also receive private instruction.
"It's teaching them patience, and about self-reliance, too. It's not a team sport; if you make a mistake, it's all on you," she said. "You have to have situational awareness and focus."
Browning remarked, "When you sit with your opponent, it's your mind against theirs. You can't say you lost the game because of a referee's mistake."
Chess can channel a kid's competitiveness, said Miller. "They don't always have a way to express that. Chess gives them a healthy venue for it and teaches good sportsmanship."
Cognitive skills like concentration, pattern recognition, problem-solving and decision-making can also improve.
Columbus Middle School Seventh-grade Assistant Principal and 21st Century Program Director Tanesha Jennings supports the recent chess movement.
"I think it's beneficial to the students, helps with critical thinking and helps just get them exposed to different things," she told The Dispatch. "When Mr. Miller moved here and was reaching out to schools, he happened to reach out to us at the right time."
"What is a fork?" Miller asked the middle school group Tuesday. Utensils aside, the "fork" he wanted players to understand is a tactic whereby a single chess piece makes two or more simultaneous attacks on other pieces.
"There are a couple of forks here," he went on, pointing to a demo chess board on the wall. "I want to see if you can spot them."
As he continued, the kids seemed to start getting it, at least realizing yet again there are endless layers to the game they're studying. Some already had some chess experience before Miller moved to Columbus, but they are now delving deeper into complex maneuvering on the way to the ultimate goal -- checkmate. Those who study between group instruction advance more rapidly. Skills can be honed online, where Miller often plays challengers from around the globe.
"I make contacts worldwide; I can play someone in Sweden, in Russia ... " he said. Games don't have to be long. Bullet chess is three minutes or less. Blitz chess can be only a minute. It's excitement, anxiety, failure and triumph, all in the space of 60 seconds.
Three skills top Miller's list of important assets to becoming a chess master -- memory capacity, work ethic and a desire to win. It's impossible to know today which chess protoges in Columbus will develop them all, or retain a passion for the game their entire life. But for Miller, there is no greater feeling than to see a child grasp a chess concept or solve a problem. It lights up the eyes. It plants confidence. This game layered with complexities can never be truly mastered, providing those who play it unlimited opportunity for challenge and improvement.
Miller knows chess can change a kid's life; it changed his.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.