Originally published on Ditmas Park Corner, March 21, 2013.
Ditmas Park’s Ian West is marking his 10th year of teaching chess at PS 139 with the school’s first ever tournament this Saturday. It’s a big moment for him and his team, which is called the Chess Ninjas and has about 30 competitive players each year, and which has come a long way in that time.
All of this is something that Ian, who had just finished an MFA in poetry when he was offered an opportunity to move to Brooklyn to teach in the Chess-in-the-Schools program, didn’t exactly see happening.
“I didn’t think I was going to be successful at it,” he said. “At the time I had the perception that I didn’t like children, but what I found was just the opposite. These kids are guileless, they speak to you from the heart, they just say stuff off the top of their heads. The things they’re asking are fundamental, and fun, questions, that we all are really still interested in, but they don’t have layers and layers of subterfuge piled on top of it. It has really turned me inside-out.”
While working with the non-profit program, which brings chess instruction to Title I NYC public schools, Ian found that he not only enjoyed teaching chess to kids, but that he liked PS 139 in particular.
“It was a special school to be in, and a special neighborhood to me,” he explained. “It was clear to me the very first day I walked in there, there was such a great vibe. I always attribute it to the diversity.”
So while he was doing other things for the program, he made sure that he got to continue going to 139 one day a week, until he was able to set up a deal with the school to be hired full-time. Now he sees every student in the school in grades K-5, in addition to running the after-school club three days a week.
“I get to go all over the whole school, and I get 45 minutes with each class. If a class is unruly, once class is over, I get to walk out of the room. I have a lot of respect for what teachers do, how they spend every day, all day, with the same group of kids. They have real jobs. I have it so easy! I mean, I have other challenges — I have to remember 1,200 names,” he said with a laugh.
There are about 40-50 kids in the club, and about 30 of them compete in tournaments, making it a pretty large team — the average for most schools is about 6-15 students. And, Ian says, it could easily be a larger number.
“I could fill three more rooms with kids,” he said. “I just don’t have the ability to do it right now.”
Because it’s just him at the moment — with help from a second coach when they go to tournaments — he has to keep the number of kids to a manageable level. So rather than offering open enrollment to the team, he has to recruit players.
“It’s unfortunate, but there’s just no way around it,” Ian said. “For recruitment purposes, academic standing, behavioral issues, none of that is ultimately important. The number one quality for me is the desire to improve oneself. If I can see that in a kid, that’s something I can grab a hold of immediately and turn into other things.”
For a competitive team, he says it’s important that his players have the desire to play, and to win.
“It’s kind of the polite way of saying that they need to have a thirst for blood,” he said. “I can see it in a kid’s eyes when I sit across the board from them. I can see that their heart is pounding and their stomach’s in knots because they want so badly to beat me. That’s a very useful energy.”
And clearly he’s good at finding the kids with that drive, because the Chess Ninjas have only been improving. The team started going to nationals in his second year with the school, and they started finishing in the top 20 right out of the gate. In the past couple of years, they’ve begun cracking the top 5.
“If you put a group of kids together and begin training them, they get competitive right away,” he said. “This year, well, I’m really excited about nationals.”
The team goes to about 10-15 competitions during the year, and after this inaugural tournament on the home turf, Ian hopes to host at least two tournaments at 139 next year.
“This is my way of celebrating my tenth year here,” Ian said. “We’re all pretty excited about it.”
The impressive part is truly that it’s his dedication that’s gotten these kids to where they are. Compare the 139 program to the one at The Dalton School in Manhattan, a prestigious private school with a rich chess history.
“It’s a juggernaut,” Ian said. “They have something like half a dozen world-class chess players who work with their team. This is what we’re competing against! They’re a little like the Yankees. And then at our school, well, there’s me. I’m a Class A player, which is strong enough to beat my kids but not to beat the masters.”
Even so, his kids seem to be getting quite a bit out of it. Wins aside, many players have continued on with chess after graduating out of 139. A decade after he started, the first group of kids that he worked with are now about to graduate from high school. He’s helped guide several to the successful program at IS 318 in Williamsburg, which was featured in the documentary Brooklyn Castle, and on then on to programs at high schools like Brooklyn Tech and Edward R. Murrow.
Perhaps the brightest example of where the 139 program can lead is Rochelle Ballantyne, who is one of the players profiled in that film. She started playing in the third grade, and was one of Ian’s very first students. Now a senior at Brooklyn Tech, she was just accepted to Stanford on a full scholarship — though that’s not even the first she was offered. After winning the Girls National Championship as a freshman (and then again as a sophomore), she won the prize for that competition, which is a full scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas to play for their collegiate team.
“I feel a certain amount of pride in seeing her succeed,” Ian said.
Of course, even if his players don’t carry on with chess after leaving 139, they do still get something out of the program, much in the same way that kids benefit from any team activity.
“The kids we have in our energetic club environment, some have been there for years, and they’re good, and that can be intimidating,” he explained. “So when you toss a first grader into that deep end, after they swim around a little bit, they change. They get up on a chair and play against stiff competition, and they get better. And they become confident.”
For those who do want to continue on with chess, Ian is hoping to help create more opportunities for them to do so. He and a partner just created Chess Academy of New York, through which they’ll launch the same kind of program that’s at 139 at other schools. He says he wants to stay at 139, but use that as the model for other schools, particularly ones that his students end up going to.
“The junior high schools, like Ditmas, that a lot of the 139 kids go to would be a natural fit,” he said. “I would like to stick to this neighborhood. I think it’s something that contributes to the neighborhood in a way that makes people happy, and I’d like to do more of that.”
Whether your child gets to experience Ian’s teaching at 139 or he or she hasn’t had the chance yet because they’re in another neighborhood school, they will have an opportunity to learn a little this summer, when Chess Academy hosts two sessions of a chess camp. The curriculum will focus on chess (alternating lessons, puzzles, and play time) with some physical activity and outdoor time as well. It’s for kids in grades K-5 of all skill levels, and will be located in a home near 139. The first week is July 8-12, the second July 15-19, and will run daily from 8:30am-5pm, and ends with a pizza party on each Friday. The cost is $350 per week, with a discount if a child is signed up for both weeks, and there’s a sibling discount as well. For more info, contact Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lots of luck to Ian and the Chess Ninjas this Saturday, and at the nationals coming up in April!