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 Vaughn Bennett, ED at DC State Chess Federation
On May 17, 2023, Vaughn Bennett, the Executive Director at DC State Chess Federation, based in Washington, District of Columbia 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 Vaughn to talk about what drives him to teach chess and how that has made an impact in the D.C. community.
How did you start playing chess?
As a child, I taught myself how to play the game. I believed I was good at it, so I started playing with people in my neighborhood. They were older individuals who had been playing for a long time. Later, I attended Hampton Institute, which is now known as Hampton University. During my two years there, I won most of my games and gained confidence in my skills.
In 1985, I moved to DC, thinking I was one of the best chess players in the country. However, when I went to Dupont Circle, a chess hub like Washington Square in New York, I quickly realized there were players far superior to me. I spent two years there, enduring defeats and learning from stronger opponents.
During the spring of 1987, a pivotal moment occurred while I was engrossed in a game of chess at Dupont Circle. It was then that a group of individuals approached me, expressing their interest in involving me in “organized” chess. Although I was initially unclear about their intentions, I replied affirmatively, and they invited me to join them. Together, we made our way to the Guy Mason Recreation Center in Georgetown, where we collectively participated in the election of the president of the DC Chess League.
A few months later, those very individuals who had extended the invitation to “organized” chess took the initiative to establish a 24-hour chess club on P Street in Washington, DC. For me, this club became a sanctuary, especially given the difficult circumstances prevailing in the city during that time. Notably, the club attracted numerous highly skilled players, including the remarkable Emory Tate, whose exceptional abilities served as a profound source of inspiration. Through their expertise, I was exposed to an entirely new realm of chess play, which fueled my determination to extend similar opportunities to others.
While pursuing my passion for chess, I also became a DC Firefighter, (assigned to the busiest firehouse in the US!), which led to a hiatus from playing. I recognized the addictive nature of chess and wanted to maintain a healthy balance. After leaving the fire department, I worked as a counselor and psychiatric technician, primarily assisting children who faced difficulties and were unable to join their peers. It was during this time that I discovered the transformative power of chess as an intervention tool. Without fail, chess had a positive impact on every child I worked with. This realization became my answer to the question of what could be done to help children avoid falling into negative circumstances, especially considering my experience at the fire department where we regularly responded to distressing calls.
Since then, I’ve been dedicated to promoting chess, focusing on providing access to the game. I firmly believe in its academic, social, and economic benefits, which extend to various age groups. Our seniors, too, can find great value in chess, especially as chess has been proven to help delay the onset of dementia. By acknowledging and harnessing the game’s potential, we can make significant strides in education, society, and personal growth.
To me, the rewards go beyond material compensation. The joy I witness on children’s faces when I present them with trophies and medals is priceless. Seeing them gain confidence and knowing that chess is something they can hold onto is incredibly rewarding. Often, our children face immense challenges, and we aim to strengthen their support systems. Chess can be that vital thread that builds resilience and empowers them to overcome obstacles.
I focus on the positive aspects of chess and the immense potential it holds. While acknowledging the obstacles, I firmly believe that with access, support, and recognition, we can unlock the benefits it offers to academia, social development, and our communities.
Would you say that children are your inspiration for teaching?
Certainly. When I reflect on it, I see chess as a continuation of the work I did in the fire department. Back then, I was running into burning buildings, rescuing people, providing medical assistance, and saving lives. Chess serves as a similar tool for me. I work with children, seniors, and people of all ages, aiming to open their minds to the foresight that Benjamin Franklin spoke about in his paper titled, “The Morals of Chess”. Once they grasp these qualities, they can’t simply turn them off. Dr. Franklin recognized that chess is not just a game but possesses valuable qualities that can greatly benefit one’s life. It teaches patience, sacrifice, and cultivates a stronger chess player and a better person overall.
What has been the hardest obstacle for you to provide chess equity for all?
One of the major obstacles in DC is the high cost of participating in tournaments. Many children simply cannot afford the entry fees for US Chess Federation (USCF) rated tournaments. Chess can be an expensive endeavor, especially at higher levels. Some tournaments charge exorbitant amounts like $45 per entry, despite it only costing $0.25 to rate a chess game. Why should someone be charged $45 in advance and $90 at the door? These financial barriers prevent many people from playing chess and accessing its benefits. Since 1986, Chess in the Schools has been providing free chess tournaments, and I’ve decided to do the same. Witnessing the joy on children’s faces makes it all worthwhile. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to organize and host free USCF tournaments nearly every weekend. Lately, I’ve focused more on children because the USCF has brought the national championships to the DC area from 2022 through 2026. So, I must prepare the children and help them learn how to play, including understanding how to write down their moves using the combination of alphabets and numbers.
What would you consider your personal teaching philosophy and how does it guide you when you’re interacting with your students?
My teaching philosophy revolves around using chess as a tool to enhance students’ everyday lives. When I instruct them, I emphasize the aspects of chess that teach them to think strategically and make better decisions. If they receive instructions and fail to follow them, there will be consequences for their actions. Even with the youngest students, like three or four-year-olds, I draw connections to everyday life. For example, when I talk about crossing the street, I relate it to the 64 squares on the chessboard, where they need to be aware of everything happening. I emphasize the connection between chess and life in my teaching, as that is the core of my philosophy.
How do you encourage and help your students understand that playing fair is an essential part of chess?
I prepare my students for each tournament by explaining potential scenarios. I inform them that some opponents might touch a piece or make a move and then put it back. In such cases, they should raise their hand and inform the tournament director. If the director didn’t observe the incident and has no witnesses, they can only observe the game from there. I teach my students that it might not feel good to know someone cheated, but a true champion doesn’t let such occurrences dictate their feelings about the game. They should continue to play with integrity, regardless of the circumstances. Losing can be upsetting, as nobody likes to lose, but even in defeat, they can hold their heads high, knowing they did their best. When I see my students coming out of the games with smiles or maintaining their positive attitude, even after losing, it shows me that they will carry themselves in the same manner when facing challenges in life.
The more they play chess, the more they understand the importance of fair play and carrying themselves as champions. I instruct my students that if they have a problem during a game, they should not argue with their opponent. Instead, they should stop the clock and raise their hand, seeking assistance from the tournament director. This approach helps instill fair play values in them. I have many students who now serve as tournament directors in the District of Columbia, more than any other place in the metro area. These children are now upholding the rules, and settling disputes like judges. By practicing fair play in chess tournaments, they learn how to apply it in life as well.
In chess, it is very common for players to go through a slump. How do you support your students when they are feeling defeated?
Everyone goes through rough patches, even in chess. I share my own experiences of losing with my students, letting them know that I, too, used to struggle and was defeated for two straight years. I tell them stories about friends who initially didn’t know how to play chess but eventually became experts. I also highlight examples of children, and their peers, who started with a rating of 500 and gradually surpassed 1000. I assure my students that they’ve done their best and that we can go over their games together, identifying the mistakes so they can learn from them. I currently have a few students who are going through the same challenges you mentioned. It’s essential to provide them with more opportunities to play and learn. Improvement always comes, but they need to analyze their games and identify areas for growth. I try to provide them with the necessary tools, whether it’s opening theory or other aspects depending on their level. Improvement is a process that comes with time and effort.
How do you adapt your teaching methods to each group of students that you teach? Do you think being flexible and having different teaching methods has helped your students learn?
I approach teaching with compassion and empathy, regardless of the student group. I envision myself in their shoes and think about how I would like to be encouraged to keep playing. I always remind my students that they have 10,000 games to play; that they should not dwell too much on a defeat; and that a loss is an opportunity to learn. I emphasize that chess is a marathon, not a sprint, and a continuous learning process. Regular exposure to competitions helps them improve. Chess in the Schools (CIS) provides a great example. Their tournaments offer kids the chance to participate and eventually produce players like Justus D. Williams or James Black, who became masters. Looking at their beginnings, you’ll see that they started with ratings around 600 and gradually climbed to 1800 or 1900. They played numerous CIS tournaments to reach their current level.
I make it a point to give out many trophies and medals. At the end of each tournament, every participant comes to the front so that they can share the spotlight. As the number of children increases, it becomes more challenging, but allowing each child to come forward and receive applause for their efforts encourages them to continue. When everyone applauds and they receive a medal, even if they didn’t win, it helps them feel like winners. Providing these opportunities to others is of utmost importance to me. The Andy Lerner Award for Excellence in Chess Education was a monumental event for me. After nearly 30 years of teaching in DC, I finally felt recognized. It was a moment I’ll never forget, and I hope to continue helping children through chess instruction.
How has being a finalist for the Andy Lerner Award impacted you, and what do you plan to do next?
Being selected as a finalist for the Andy Lerner Excellence in Education Award means a great deal to me. The recognition has truly encouraged and inspired me to continue my work. In the future, I would like to collaborate with Chess in the Schools and other chess programs in New York. During the pandemic, we connected online, and some of our children played against each other. I believe in organizing more and more tournaments, teaching more children and seniors, and reaching communities affected by gun violence. I want to expand the curriculum so that more people can learn how to teach chess effectively. I am genuinely grateful to my students and the people who have supported me. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to receive this award. My focus is on contributing to the growth and recognition of chess as an educational tool.
I am excited to reach out to other people from the award ceremony and schedule tournaments with the other finalists and the award winner. Additionally, I plan to travel to New York with my students so they can experience the chess culture there. My main objective is to continue teaching and preparing my students for local, state, and national chess tournaments.