Tayler Boyke-Darbouze is a senior at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School. She is currently pursuing an associate’s degree in biology with a mathematics concentration at Medgar Evers College. When she graduates high school, she will…
Interview with Jose Garza, from the Chicago Chess Foundation
On May 17, 2023, Jose Garza was announced as one of the finalists for the inaugural Lerner Award for Excellence in Chess Education. After the ceremony, CIS alumna Marilyn Lucero met with Jose Garza to talk about his experience teaching in Chicago, and how his passion for teaching has impacted the students in his community.
Marilyn Lucero: How did you start playing chess?
Jose Garza: I started when I was 11. Friends of mine knew how to play. One day I was just walking by one of their houses and they were outside playing. I wanted to take a look and they showed me the basic moves. I always had this genuine interest and affection for chess. I never studied any theory and never had any formal training. I was attracted to the game and I would buy chess sets. I would play with friends, and it was entertaining.
ML: What do you think was your inspiration or motivation to continue playing chess, and furthermore start offering chess instruction to children?
JG: My oldest son, when he was 6 years old. His school had a chess club and he wanted to join. He wanted to learn chess, so I helped him with the basic moves, and just from that one experience I got really sucked into it. It’s like I really wanted to learn more. As a self-interest but often to help my son. Reviewing the game with him reminded me of my childhood, the affection for the game, and it just took off from there.
ML: With your own experience teaching your son. Do you think that that experience alone influenced you to teach other children or do you think that it was definitely more than one experience that you had?
JG: My oldest son was going to a different school, and my other kids were going to our neighborhood school. I wanted my neighborhood school to have the chess experience as well. There weren’t any teachers there willing to teach chess, so I decided to take it on myself. In general I’ve always been fond of teaching. Anytime I’ve learned something I wanted to teach others and this was always true since grade school. I’m an engineer and my company had this program where folks were able to become apprentice engineers. I would teach the series. Having a strong affection for chess carried me over to start teaching it at my other kids’ schools.
ML: I know that you focus on low-income students. Do you think that you’ve seen the impact that chess has created on their lives?
JG: Oh yes, all my kids, 100% go to college. Not many programs can say that. So, I’m proud of my kids. They make the honor roll or high honors as well, which is pretty amazing. You could argue, is chess just attracting those kinds of kids or is it helping them? In my experience, I have found that chess is helping kids become high achievers. For example, I have a second grader that has improved. When he was a first grader last year, nothing stood out in him, but this year he’s gotten really good at chess. Just this Friday he told me he made the honor roll for the first time. It’s just amazing to witness the transformation from what I saw in him last year to this year. His academic performance has improved, and at the same time his chess has improved. So I definitely feel chess made a difference in his life as well as all my kids.
ML: Do you think the income disparity in Chicago has ever affected your ability to provide chess tournaments to your students?
JG: No, not at all. My wife, thankfully, shares the same passion that I have in helping kids become good chess players. She plays chess herself, and she helps run the PTA at our local school. At the neighborhood school, she got her friends involved and they helped fundraise. The money we raise helps support our kids. We take them to Nationals. Last year I took over 45 kids to the Nationals and we paid half the registration cost, and most of the meals as well.
ML: How does playing chess influence your teaching abilities or your teaching style?
JG: There are always different solutions to a particular game. Showing the different types of possibilities in the game and what kids should look for: weaknesses or opportunities made me a better teacher. I’m able to look at different types of plans and then I have a realistic idea of how I can turn something in my favor.
ML : Chess is a game where there is a winner and a loser, with the exception of a draw. How do you help your students overcome losing a game?
JG: I tell them, it’s a learning opportunity and that they’ll get better, and they always do. I tell them to stay positive. We got more games to go and do as best you can. Also, I like to celebrate any win that they achieve. When they come in and they let me know they won, I make an announcement to all the other kids. Everyone joins in and they clap for the person who’s won the game. It’s nice to win, it’s great to win, I want to win, and I want my kids to win; however, I never make my kids feel bad for not winning. I try to encourage them, it’s just a matter of doing better and learning from your mistakes.
ML: What do you consider to be your own personal, teaching philosophy? How do you relay your philosophy to your students?
JG: My motto is “Anyone can play chess, and if you can play chess, you can do anything.” I tell my students to always consider alternatives. When you’re able to do that, it’s a great exercise for the mind. It helps kids get better at other things. When kids learn to be good at something, they feel like they can be good at anything, and everything is possible for them. I guess the teaching philosophy is that chess provides many types of alternatives to reach a goal.
ML: Is it hard to keep your students motivated?
JG: I have noticed one school group, my oldest group, they have a lack of interest. So I am always trying to find ways to motivate them. There are different ways to motivate kids; it just depends on the group and what they like. In my oldest group, I offer a prize of $1 to solve a puzzle, and it works. They have to find the solution from beginning to end. You have to be able to understand every move, it helps them get better.
ML: What does chess mean to you?
JG: Chess is not just a game, it’s more than a game. It’s only one of 3 prodigy studies; the others are math and music. It’s a game, but it’s more than a game. More books have been written about chess than any other subject in human history and more people play chess in the world than all the sports combined. So for me, chess can make a real difference in a person’s life especially in the way they behave and think. I see kids as young as first grade feel confident about the game. It just transforms them. They are much more confident, much more assured of themselves, and I can see it really makes a difference in their lives.
ML: As you mentioned, chess is a universal game for everyone. What is your goal when you’re teaching students?
JG: The goal is mental exercise. They start doing better in their school work and that’s ultimately what’s the most important. I tell them they need to practice but they have to make sure their homework is done first. The whole idea is to make them better academically. Once they are able to capture the tactical play of the game it transcends into their academic performances.
Marilyn: Do you think that chess can help kids get onto a better path in life?
JG: It’s interesting you say that because that’s the real issue here. We’re trying to reach more students, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’ve been trying to figure out why this is, and it always comes down to the parents. Good parents are doing their best for their kids, showing them the right path. I have a friend who works with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. I asked him if they assess the inmates’ educational abilities, and I’m pretty sure most of them would be on the lower end. That’s where chess could help. If we could bring chess to every area in the city where kids are exposed to it, it would make a difference. It would inspire them to learn and improve their situations; even if their parents are being a negative influence, chess could still make a positive impact on their lives; despite the real problems we face in the city. Introducing chess early on, maybe in first grade, could save many kids from the negative paths they’re currently on.
ML: I know the 2019 pandemic obviously affected a lot of us, how did it personally affect your ability to teach chess to children?
JG: The pandemic actually helped expand my ability to reach more students because it was something new for a lot of kids to learn online. I know many chess programs suffered because of it. To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with it either, but I knew I had to make an effort. So, I learned how to use Zoom and Google to teach the kids how to play chess throughout the pandemic. Fortunately, I was able to retain many of my students while other coaches couldn’t. I was able to keep my kids motivated, and it turned out to be some of our best years. During that time, while many kids weren’t participating, my students were actively engaged. We never won so many trophies in all my years of teaching.
When we went to the national tournament last year, three out of the four schools that I brought there won national trophies. It was truly remarkable! It was my best year ever! Unlike previous national tournaments with around 2,000 to 2,200 participants, there were only about 1,300 participants this year. It worked well for us because I had many kids there. So, yes, technology was definitely a big help for me in keeping my students.
ML: Chess, just like any other game can be super competitive. How do you promote positive peer relationships with the children?
JG: Kids, especially little ones, get really excited when they win. I always tell them that everyone is on the same team and we are all learning together. So I get to promote positive behaviors with them after teaching them how they should behave after they win.
ML: Does that correlate to their learning, social or emotional development skills?
JG: Absolutely! I am teaching them what’s right and what’s wrong. Sometimes they forget, and that’s okay because I just tell them again until they get it. Overall, my kids are very well-behaved.
ML: Do you plan on offering another free summer camp for low-income families this year?
JG: I will be offering a free chess camp this year. I’ve been doing this for years. The school that participates in this offers free lunch and space for us to work with. Also, the foundation I’m in supports it with instructors for the classrooms. We have about 40 slots, and I’m guaranteed 20 seats for my students. We get some kids we have never met before, so it’s nice to meet new kids. It is a very worthwhile experience for everyone.
ML: What do you think is the most challenging part about teaching chess?
JG: Well, one of my biggest struggles is getting more kids involved and interested in chess, especially in my area. It’s a community that’s really into soccer, and every parent wants their kid to become the next soccer superstar. I believe that education and academics are the real keys to success, and chess is an amazing mental workout.
I always emphasize that chess should be the number one priority in after school activities. Even my own kids were into soccer, music, and chess, and they knew that chess was the most important thing. I want more kids to get involved in chess because I’ve seen how positively it can impact them. The more kids we have participating, the better it is for everyone. For example, in the national tournament, we had 44 kids, and in the regional tournament here in Chicago, we had over 55 kids. It was really cool to see.
Sometimes, it can be tough to convince parents. I try to show parents that chess is the best activity for their child’s development. Luckily, I have some really devoted parents who understand the positive impact it has on their kids. Even if their children are busy with other stuff, they know that chess should always be number one.
ML: Now that you have been selected as a finalist for the Andy Learner Award, what do you plan to do next?
I want to get the top award, that’s my goal and I have a plan. I plan to make a really good bid for that top award. I want to go back to New York and be with all the other wonderful folks I met this year. Being a finalist for the Andy Lerner Award makes me want to be prominent at the national level. I want to reach out to other coaches to promote chess. Also, I would like to start making Youtube videos where I could give lessons to more people. I want to help everyone get better at chess.