Chess crusade moves to capture CPS students

Jerry Neugarten can make you care about chess even if you don't know a pawn from a rook.

"It's a wonderful battle game," he said when I met him last weekend at a citywide chess tournament for grade school kids, "the most beautiful battle game of all time."

It was a little after noon and Neugarten, a retired lawyer with a talkative streak, was in the cafeteria at Lane Tech College Prep, wearing blue jeans and the vest that holds the battery pack that keeps his heart going.

All around him were kids.

Little kids, slightly bigger kids. Black kids, white kids, brown kids, other. They sat at long tables, staring at chess boards, tapping at their chins, twirling their hair, plotting their conquests.

"Kids like the battle part, and they like the trophies," Neugarten said. "But the only way they can win trophies is to slow down and think out their choices."

Neugarten likes a battle too.

For four years, as the head of the youth committee of the Illinois Chess Association, the state's premier chess organization, he has been campaigning for a bigger, better, independent and free chess program in Chicago Public Schools.

His plan would involve CPS oversight but be relieved of what he and his supporters view as the school system's politics, cronyism and narrow vision for chess.

Neugarten has an organizational plan and ideas on how to fund it. His allies include people with impressive pedigrees in chess and finance. He's convinced they can raise the money to support the plan but — one of those chicken-and-egg problems — they can't raise the money until CPS commits.

"All we need is the green light," he said. "We're not asking for a nickel."

But let's stop here. Before we go further, a warning:

Chess is more than a complex game. It's a complex world. From the highest international levels on down to Chicago schools, it's rife with unusual personalities, bruised feelings and convoluted disputes.

"Chess is one of the weirdest backbiting activities," said Mike Bologna, who was attending the Lane Tech tournament as a parent and a student chess coach. "I'm kind of shocked by it."

He was kind of joking. And kind of not.

Either way, Bologna, who has helped run chess programs at Edgebrook Elementary School and Northside College Prep, is one of many school coaches who have rallied behind Neugarten's idea.

Neugarten grew up in Hyde Park, made his career as a prosecutor in Manhattan, then in 2006 moved to Highland Park to marry his elementary school sweetheart. He started wondering about some things.

Given all the research that shows how chess improves kids' grades, test scores, behavior and attendance, why were only 1,500 Chicago public school kids playing, compared with 23,000 in New York? Why did Seattle and Philadelphia have more robust chess programs?

Why were the private chess companies that run Chicago's programs charging fees that put chess out of reach for poor kids? Why was there so little chess in poor neighborhoods?

And why was chess part of the CPS sports department?