- Associated Press - Sunday, February 23, 2014

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - On a recent afternoon, in between her job as medical clerk at Germantown Methodist and the night class she needs to move up to pharmacy technician, Stephanie Thomas stopped by the chess room at Frederick Douglass School, off Chelsea.

Jasmine, her 12-year-old daughter, is one of several girls transforming the culture at a school in one of Tennessee’s most impoverished neighborhoods and challenging gender-based stereotypes some still associate with the ancient game.

Jasmine sat near the back, searching a chess board for a familiar pattern learned in the 18 months since the school unexpectedly welcomed veteran Memphis educator Jeff Bulington and his chess-in-schools project.

One of the maxims printed out and taped to the wall: “Unless you analyze the position, you will achieve nothing.”

In January, when Jasmine qualified for the open division of the Memphis Chess Club city championships, organizers told Bulington that it was a first for a female of any age. When Jasmine chose to play in the junior division, it was another Douglass girl, Shimera Paxton, who finished ahead of her in an undefeated run to that championship.

And over the weekend at the state’s scholastic chess championships, there were eight qualifiers from West Tennessee - five of them girls from Douglass.

Stephanie Thomas also attended Douglass for elementary school, like her mother and grandmother before her, and marvels at the reputation already built, in such a relatively short time. Their ZIP code, 38108, was featured in the 2005 “Born to Die” project by The Commercial Appeal that looked at the high-mortality rate in what was termed the “infant death capital.”

Of Tennessee’s 1,476 census tracts, the neighborhood surrounding Douglass, a K-8 school, ranks 1,418 in median household income, at $19,150.

“A lot of people, when they hear Douglass, they think that these children don’t do what they’re supposed to do,” Stephanie Thomas said. “But there are good kids in the neighborhood who really want to do something, be something. It’s a big step up for the neighborhood.”

Shelby County Schools’ popular optional schools program has approved making chess Douglass’ primary optional concentration for 2014-15, and Douglass is petitioning to become the only school in Tennessee with chess as a state-recognized academic offering.

Bulington and principal Lionel Cable are both too meticulous to yet claim a definite link between chess and the enormous gains Douglass showed last year on the state’s standardized tests.

But they embrace the benefits chess has brought.

“It teaches the children how to process, to slow down and think before they react, and gives them an opportunity to understand, with any move they make, the consequences that come with that,” Cable said.

Stephanie Thomas has no doubt about the effect on Jasmine’s academic progress.

“Her grades weren’t looking too pretty, but when she started playing chess, it was a big improvement. Now she’s in the Honor Society,” Stephanie said.

Across from Jasmine on Monday sat Douglass eighth-grader Christy Thomas (no relation), and behind her loomed more than a dozen trophies. Across the back wall, images of accomplished female chess players stared down.

There was Lisa Lane, from a 1961 Sports Illustrated cover story about the U.S. women’s champion, and next to it an ESPN magazine cover story about Phiona Mutesi, an aspiring teenage grandmaster from Uganda. Closer to Jasmine and Christy was a poster Bulington got when he took some students to the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis — Jacqueline Piatigorsky in a kindly pose from an exhibit titled, “Patron. Player. Pioneer.”

The exhibit had included a letter a young Bobby Fischer once wrote to Piatigorsky, thanking her for funding competitive events.

Jasmine, like classmate Tieraney Biggs, carried a cloth bag with “ORLANDO” written in neon cursive script, bought when the foundation supporting Douglass chess sent nearly 20 people to the grade-level nationals in December. The girls will go to Chicago in April for the all-girls national championships put on by the foundation of former world champion Garry Kasparov.

Bulington had taken a group of girls to that tournament in 2012, when his program was supported by Lester School in Binghamton, but when the state gave Lester to the charter school operator Cornerstone Prep, he was forced to move.

Cable, a former band teacher in his fourth year as Douglass principal, accepted Bulington, who back in 2003 had led a group of boys funded in part by former heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis to an elementary school national title.

Some of the stronger chess players from Lester also followed and were immediate standouts, but now they blend into a population of children carrying chess into the neighborhood and beyond.

And there is some boy-girl rivalry, a welcome development to Bulington because, at so many tournaments, boys far outnumber girls.

“I think we’ve done something important handling gender,” Bulington said. “I’ve heard so many people over the years say, ‘We’ve never had success with girls.’ I think these girls are demonstrating something.”

A few weeks ago, Christy Thomas stopped Bulington and asked who would take over Douglass chess upon his retirement. She thought maybe it would be Shimera’s brother, Emmanuel Paxton, a Douglass High sophomore with a ranking nearing 2,000.

But Bulington reminded Christy that she had taught chess to many of the children and adults on her street near Douglass. Maybe it could be her, Bulington suggested.

“And she kind of gave me this smile,” Bulington said, “as if to say, ‘I hoped you might say that.’ “

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