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Daingerfield-Lone Star ISD volunteer teaches chess to 300 students

By Meredith Shamburger
Dec. 17, 2017 at 11:56 p.m.

Above: Volunteer Jay Davis works with a group of fifth-grade chess players Thursday at South Elementary School in Daingerfield. Below:  Diego Mendoza, 11, thinks about his next move while he and other fifth-graders  at South practice  chess Thursday.

DAINGERFIELD — About five years ago, retired accountant Jay Davis was asked to coach Daingerfield-Lone Star ISD's second-grade UIL chess team.

Chess was a new academic competition, and Davis had played competitively throughout his life. So he said yes.

He didn't realize how much it would change his life for the better.

"They had eight little kids," Davis recalled. "I thought it was three weeks' worth of time, and so it'll be OK. So I did. I was hooked. It was, is and will be the blessing of my life. Period."

The chess program Davis helped start has grown to about 300 students. Aside from the UIL teams that compete each year, between 40 and 50 students at campuses throughout the district give up their recess time once a week for chess club — and that's just the students who meet the conduct and academic requirements that allow them to participate.

Competing in this year's UIL district contest, Daingerfield-Lone Star ISD's chess teams won first place overall in second grade, third grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade and eighth grade, with individual team members earning several top spots.

The fourth-grade chess team earned a second-place spot — but team members placed first and second individually, Davis is quick to add.

The program starts students learning chess in first grade. They learn the basics: which pieces go where and how they can move.

UIL's chess competitions involve individual puzzles, which students must figure out, rather than actual games.

The non-UIL chess club gaming sessions are limited to about 48 students, Davis said, because otherwise they run out of chess sets for students to play with.

And even though his youngest students are in first grade, Davis said they pick up the rules of chess easily.

"These little kids are sponges at that age," he said.

The chess program has had several benefits, Davis and campus officials note. One is that students have less absenteeism, especially on chess club days. Learning chess also helps students academically.

West Elementary School Principal Lesia Lewis said she's seen improvement in her students' problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

"Sometimes, children, they may not necessarily be the brightest students in class, but they have those abilities that are helpful when you play chess," she said. "It kind of ... meets those students' needs. Because some of the children who play have not necessarily been our honor roll students.

"But they were able to get in there, and they enjoyed it and they were able to catch on. They just had this knack that they're able to be good chess players."

Daniel Pritchett, principal at South Elementary School, said the program also helps build students' self-confidence.

"I think it has really helped to grow confidence in some, because ... it gives them something to cling to, something that they've found that they're passionate about," he said. "Mr. Davis, the one who really heads that program up for us, is integrated into the school. His passion for it really kind of bleeds over onto the kids, and they really want to perform well and learn the game of chess."

Davis first learned chess at McMurry University in Abilene, where he was allowed to take a chess course in lieu of business math. He got hooked on the game and later started playing competitively.

It was chess, Davis said, that helped him go further in life.

"I faced the same challenge in grade school, high school and college that a lot of kids do today: I was a little bit hyper, I was a little bit — I had trouble focusing," he said. "And by taking that chess course, it allowed me to accomplish things that I would have never been able to accomplish in my life."

Davis said he hopes other retired people will decide to volunteer in their local schools, especially in UIL academic competitions.

"What would happen to our schools, every single campus in Texas, if they had more people that were retired like I am that would volunteer to just help with any of these subject areas?" he said. "It's tremendously rewarding. But it's also tremendously rewarding to the kids. A lot of schools have parents that volunteer for something or another.

"But the retired community, I just don't know whether they know how rewarding it can be getting up there and getting involved with any of these programs. It makes such a profound difference in these kids' lives."

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