Youth use chess to overcome obstacles, grow


Youth use chess to overcome obstacles, grow

8:30 a.m. PDT October 6, 2016

The recreation room at Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility in Salem was nearly silent.

About two dozen young men filled the room, but only the lightest cough, the tapping of a shoe, or the whispers of “check” and “check mate” could be heard.

Youth from five of the Oregon Youth Authority’s closed-custody facilities went to Hillcrest on Wednesday to participate in a Chess for Success tournament.

The room was filled with seven tables where competitors faced each other. They were playing five rounds, with one game per round. The youth were battling for the first, second and third place titles.

But playing chess for these young men isn’t just about improving their game — it’s about improving their lives.

Chess for Success is a Portland-based nonprofit that uses chess to teach children and young adults high-level thinking and social skills. The program trains teachers across Oregon and Washington to provide chess instruction after school or in the classroom.

The program is free to the schools; each student receives his or her own chess set.

The organization started 24 years ago to help impoverished schools and children in grades K-5, but it soon expanded to eighth grade and correctional facilities. The youth facilities work with youth in their teens and early 20s.

“It’s not a chess program, it’s an education program,” said Julie Young, executive director of Chess for Success.

Chess for Success partners with 83 schools in 21 districts, and works with more than 3,300 students and youths.

A two-year study found Chess for Success students had a higher percentage in meeting or exceeding standards in math and reading than state and district percentages.

The report also found the program encouraged more girls to participate in mathematics and engineering programs and to pursue these fields for professions.

Additionally, the program was shown to train and enable participants, including students with special needs, to be patient and analytical in all problem-solving situations — increasing their academic achievement and self-esteem.

Byron Miller, a high school teacher at Hillcrest, uses the program in his math classes.

He said the program helps teach self-management when it comes to anger and impulsiveness. Young and Miller agreed the program shows youths how to be responsible for their actions.

This comes down to the tiniest of details, like having to play the chess piece you touch. The youth did not have timers, allowing them to think slowly and deliberately.

Miller said the program helps the youths improve their concentration and focus as well.

This was clear as they played Wednesday. With the exception of a few side conversations, the young men were focused on the boards in front of them.

“Chess expands your mind a lot and makes you think ahead … it helps you think through things,” said Matthew, 18. Only first names of the participants are used.

Matthew won his game in the second round, but lost in the first round. He has been playing for about a year.

He said he originally thought chess was “for nerds.” He said it was hard for him to imagine himself playing “since (he was) a jock.”

“I thought it was stupid,” he said. “It’s the last thing I ever thought I’d be doing.”

Getting the opportunity to compete in a statewide tournament was a nice change of pace, he said, and was a good way for him to see “how good (he) really (is).”

Cameron, 16, won his game in the second round as well.

He said his main strategy was to always be looking for ways to protect his king.

Playing people from other facilities was “nerve-wracking,” he said. “But it’s fun … I like new challenges and trying new things.”

Cameron’s only been playing for six months, but also said he found the game “helps with patience,” having to “sit and think things through before (acting).”

“It’s a really good program,” he said. “I’m glad they brought it for the youth and that it’s not just for other people to enjoy.”

Cameron took third overall in the tournament.

Contact Natalie Pate at, 503-399-6745, or follow on Twitter @Nataliempate, on Facebook at or on the Web at


  • First place went to Riley from North Coast Correctional Facility
  • Second place went to Robert from MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility
  • Third place went to Cameron from Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility

Published by Natalie Pate

Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She wrote about education for more than seven years at the Statesman Journal and now covers education and other topics throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is originally from Colorado and earned her B.A. in Politics and French from Willamette University.

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