- The Washington Times - Monday, July 20, 2009

Isabel James, 12, a rising 7th grader at Washington International School (WIS), was first introduced to chess when her family visited Argentina.

“I have learned to push myself to think of all the possibilities, not just on the chessboard, but, for example, in preparing for a test,” Isabel said, and explained how the game has helped her in the classroom.

By the time Isabel was in 3rd grade, her WIS K-3 team had tied for first place at the National Elementary School Chess Championship in Denver.

This summer, Isabel, along with another D.C. female student who attends the Maret School but did not want to be identified, is headed to the annual Susan Polgar National Invitational for Girls at Texas Tech University (TTU) in Lubbock, Texas.

Although Isabel does not qualify, the Maret student has an opportunity to win a four-year-academic scholarship to TTU, which has agreed to award one to the highest finishing player who is eligible for college.

“I get to go by myself, and it is all girls, which is unusual for chess tournaments,” Isabel said.

Susan Polgar, the Women’s World Chess Champion from 1996 to 1999 and the first woman to qualify for the Men’s World Championship Cycle in 1986, began an all-girls invitational chess tournament in 2004 with the purpose of broadening the game to the most skilled young female chess players across the country.

The competition is a culmination of a series of regional, state and nationwide qualifying events, over a period of 12 months, with more than 3,000 young girls vying to represent their respective states, according to the Susan Polgar Foundation Web site.

Isabel was mentored by Vaughn Bennett, founder of the National Chess Academy in the District, who she met during the second grade and who has provided “constant encouragement.”

Mr. Bennett, 44, known in the D.C. streets as “the Chess Man,” was the chess instructor for WIS during Isabel’s third- and fourth-grade years.

A former D.C. firefighter and native of Pittsburgh, Mr. Bennett remembers going to Dupont Circle - where matches take place all day every day - and thinking, “I was best chess player in the country.” He was wrong. Mr. Bennett was “beat on for two years until I began to hold my own.”

To Mr. Bennett, “chess is a real-life matter of life and death.”

During the past 15 years, Mr. Bennett has taught more than a dozen students who have been checkmated by street violence. “With a full effort to promote chess, they could be with us today,” he said.

“When I was a firefighter and I saw many of our children and youth dead in the street, I wanted to come up with a solution to having our children in a safer condition so that the police and ambulances weren’t coming for them,” said Mr. Bennett.

In 1996, there were 397 homicides in the District, according to the Metropolitan Police Department Web site.

Mr. Bennett left the D.C. Fire Department in 1997 and began working at a group home in Washington, where he quickly started teaching chess as an “intervention tool” for abused and neglected children.

“Chess not only helps children in their academics, it boosts their self-esteem, self-confidence and helps the children consider the consequences of their actions,” said Mr. Bennett.

Most Washingtonians know Mr. Bennett through his nearly 10-year relationship with the D.C. Public Library. Every Saturday from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mr. Bennett conducts public chess seminars. Everyone is welcome to either participate or watch. About every month, a tournament is held in which trophies are handed out, according to Mr. Bennett, who self-finances the event.

There are numerous nonprofit organizations promoting chess to area youth, but Mr. Bennett’s National Chess Academy is the only program that has sent city youth to national competitions sanctioned by the U.S. Chess Federation.

Mr. Bennett’s students follow international chess rules, which consist of marking every move and writing down their moves, as well as their opponents moves, in “algebraic notation,” the international language of chess.

“The children can go a lot farther than I can, as an adult, when I was their age,” said Mr. Bennett. “I didn’t know about, or there weren’t the college scholarships that are available now. In reaching for the scholarships, which are highly competitive, even if they don’t get them, they’re still on the path toward ultimate social and academic success.”

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