Teaching Chess Makes Kings and Queens of Toledo Youth

The young girl’s drawing was simple, yet revealing and powerful. It was in two parts: one, titled “Before Chess,” with her looking over a chess board, feeling confused and lacking confidence; the other, titled “After Chess,” with her smiling and surrounded by hearts and stars and words of thanks to the man whose help transformed her through learning the game.

“It was a sweet drawing that she gave to us,” said the man drawn in the picture, Warren Woodberry.

Woodberry, a retiree who with his wife, Yolanda, teaches Toledo Public Schools youths that time-honored game of strategy to build up their self-esteem, give them a place where they can put troubles aside while deep in concentration and have fun.

She is one of many over the past dozen years or so who the Woodberrys have taught after school during the academic year. Working from their base at Jones Leadership Academy, the Woodberrys greet and meet students from four other TPS buildings: Ella P. Stewart Academy for Girls, Escuela SMART Academy, Grove Patterson Academy and Winterfield Venture Academy. They also host homeschooled youths.

Warren said TPS transports Ella P. Stewart and Escuela students to the academy, while parents bring their children from the other two schools to Jones for the sessions, which run from 3-5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Woodberrys are at the academy on other days to welcome other students who want to join the chess program.

Many of the youths have learned the game well – several have won state and national competitions.

The chess powerhouse of sorts began by accident. Warren said he and Yolanda were at the Frederick Douglass Community Center working with youths in art and talking about inventions. “I had a chess board beside my desk,” Warren recalled, “and kids thought it was for checkers. I showed them the game.”

“Toledo’s not a chess town, like New York,” said Warren, who worked in the clothing business in New York City, where he met Yolanda. With the Woodberrys’ guidance, youths learned the game.

Warren said TPS leadership asked the Woodberrys to expand the chess program, which led to the move to the academy.

There have been challenges. “We’ve had some cases where kids didn’t want to be there,” Warren said, “but converted them and many went on to win championships.

“We offer more than chess,” he continued. “We do counseling. We spend two hours interacting with them. The kids are free to ask questions, and we feed them. Sometimes we have 15 to 20 kids, make sure they’re sociable. We don’t allow bullying or bad language.”

Eventually, he said, “some get hooked on the game and become competitive.”

Warren said in the early years, all the youths were boys. Then girls started showing interest, some going on to win championships, he said. The last couple of years it’s been pretty even between the genders.

While the school year is over, the Woodberrys continue to teach chess to youths in first through seventh grade through a summer camp at Woodward High School from June 3 to July 3 called Brains and Body, conducted by the Toledo Police Department.

Warren reflected on teaching chess to youths. “Some students pick up the game very quickly and some learn at a slower pace,” he said, “but eventually we have had positive surprises with the slower paced players on the learning process who takes more time but gives more thought than some of those that quickly learns the game of chess.”

“Chess has a great effect, it relaxes you,” he continued. “People who play chess can put away all their issues and concentrate on the game. There’s a calmness.”

As for not only next school year but the foreseeable future, Warren, 86, said, “I’m in good shape. I’m going to do this as long as I can.”