We know all about the stories of woe that fill this newscast daily.... And many of them are about youths exhibiting lawless anti-social behavior. What’s the solution? No one seems to know for sure...but the consensus seems to be that if young minds can be engaged in constructive disciplines such as sports from early on, then they’d be less likely to engage in transgressive behaviour. But what about the game of chess? It’s not a sport per se...but it is a game for the ages – one with so many layers of master, so many depths to discover. Still, many see it as a game for the elite – but a new programme is trying to make it widely accessible to youth across Belize as an alternative to anti-social behaviour. And the poster boy for that outreach programme is Jamaican born chess master Maurice Ashley. He’s been living in the us since he was 14, but says “feels close to home” in Belize – and programme organizers hope to harness that connection to develop an affinity in Belize’s young chess players. Special correspondent Janelle Chanona reports.

Janelle Chanona Reporting,
These days it seems crime and violence are all we hear about and everyone has a different idea for a solution; tougher gun laws, harsher prison sentences, reintroduction of the death penalty. But one woman is taking a very different approach because she believes that the solution to today’s problems can be found within sixty four squares, one move at a time.”

Elia Anderson, Program Director – BNYCF
“We are looking for kids playing chess because that will get them of the streets and will make the whole society a much better place.”

Chess may seem like a tame response to gun play, gangs, and grenades but for several years Elia Anderson facilitated educational and chess programs for the youth of New York City and after witnessing dramatic successes in the big apple she is convinced chess can make a difference in little Belize.

Elia Anderson,
“It makes you think before you do something which is the most crucial thing that any human being can possibly have. And also it trains your brain to concentrate for prolonged periods of time and kids don’t realize that they actually focusing on the game, they are just excited so they are thinking about the game for 40 minutes, maybe an hour and the same thing happens when they go back to school. Now they can sit down in front of the math book and there is no trouble for them to concentrate and focus.”

For the evidence of the power of chess one need no further than the turnout at the George Price Center this October when hundreds of chess enthusiasts gathered in Belmopan to welcome one of the biggest names in the game.

Maurice Ashley, International Grandmaster of Chess
“It is such a wonderful thing to have young people front and center because this is really what it is all about, the young people.”

To many Maurice Ashley is considered the Tiger Woods of chess. In March 1999 he put the stereotype of chess as a white game in checkmate by becoming the world’s first African American International Grandmaster.

Maurice Ashley,
“I grew up in some tough neighbourhoods in Jamaica, my mother wasn’t around and because she came to America to try to make a better life she left us with our grandmother and my brother, my sister, myself, and it was tough. It was tough being away from the mother you loved and it was tough because we didn’t have much. So it was a modest beginning and it was easy but hard work, dedication, and falling in love with a game like chess that really transformed me and opened so many vistas to the rest of the world; got me out.”

So far the new found popularity of the game, especially among primary schoolers has been largely due to a series of creative workshops, teacher and coaching seminars, and an annual national tournament all organized by the Belize National Chess Foundation, an initiative Anderson founded in July of 2007.

Micah Williams, Peace Corps Volunteer
“I’ve actually seen first hand with some of the kids that I’ve worked with where they’ve gone from struggling in school and getting in trouble to spending their free time playing chess instead of getting into fights and they are doing excellent and getting great grades in their school and their teachers are just astounded and that is one of the biggest things that I’ve seen in getting support from principals and teachers when they start to see that same thing in their schools.”

Now Anderson is hoping Ashley’s star power will inspire even more Belizeans to start playing chess. The Grandmaster himself has been so impressed with the Belizean program that his own organization, Maurice Ashley Teaches Chess, has partnered with the Belize National Youth Chess Foundation. It is a collaboration designed to give local players direct access to Ashley’s chess skills and secrets. Organized chess isn’t a new concept to Belize but former national players are happy chess is making a comeback.

Carlos Arguelles, Chess Player
“It is just thinking ahead; four moves ahead, ten moves ahead. It is something that just makes you think about every option that you have on the table.”

Janelle Chanona,
“Does that help you in your business life today?”

Carlos Arguelles,
“Yeah definitely. It is something that I am glad I learnt and it trains my mind to think the way I do.”

Benefits like critical thinking may last a lifetime but for first timers its more about having fun.

Ellisa Luna, First Time Chess Player
“First I really didn’t know about chess, I only knew about checkers and then I heard about it on the news and I really really wanted to come and do it.”

Evander Theus, First Time Chess Player
“Today is my first day and I am doing good so far. I only lost one game.”

Janelle Chanona,
“What is your favourite part of playing the game, winning?”

Javier Pech, Chess Player
“Not just winning but to be happy with the next person because if the next one is mad because I won him then I will not be satisfied.”

Micah Williams,
“Besides becoming chess players, you see them actually become better people. A lot of them just tend to have a lot more control in their daily lives. They think through a lot more and we very commonly see improvement in grades in school.”

Primary school principal Glorycela Torres became a champion for chess after she saw a distinct change in her students’ behaviour.

Glorycela Torres, Principal – St. Joseph Primary School
“This is something that we’ve been encouraging for the past two years. Myself and David Martinez, we have been working along with District Ed in terms of trying to see what more we can do in the district because especially Belize District with one third of the population where it is crime and violence, we need to ensure we take our children out of the streets.”

Maurice Ashley,
“The wonderful thing about chess is that it is inexpensive to start. It is not golf clubs you have to buy, it is not tennis rackets that you have to get, it’s a chess board and some pieces. So it is easy to start, very easy to start, very easy to play, just with that alone. But of course we don’t want just that for the kids. We want them to have books, we’d love for them to have computers, we’d definitely want them to have role models in their teachers and that requires funding.”

Elia Anderson,
“With the kids you know, what is going to happen if you put a lot of energy into them, they are like sponges, they are going to get better at what they are doing. So you can see the growth of the child right in front of your eyes. In one year’s time I see the kids who couldn’t do anything with the passion or concentration, now they just like chess players.”

Maurice Ashley,
“It keeps them off the streets, it is keeping them from in front of TV sets, and it is developing their self esteem. How can you beat that at the cost per child that chess is.”

No one thing will rid Belize of crime or violence but if chess can keep even one child doing something positive we should all give the game a chance. Reporting for 7News I am Janelle Chanona.

The primary patron for the Belize National Youth Chess Foundation has been Ian Anderson’s Cave Branch Jungle Lodge. If you would like to make donation, volunteer with the Chess Foundation or get information about clubs in your area, please visit their website. Volunteers do not have to have any previous chess experience.

Channel 7