Berkeley Chess School Founder Elizabeth Shaughnessy

Elizabeth Shaughnessy at the 2008 Chess Olympiad

Elizabeth Shaughnessy at the 2008 Chess Olympiad in Dresden

As part of our continuing “This Girl Is On Fire” campaign to close the achievement gap, we conducted an interview with Berkeley Chess School founder Elizabeth Shaughnessy.

Elizabeth was born in Ireland and one of her early memories was watching her father play chess with a Lithuanian WWII refugee. Her family was sheltering his family. She learned chess as a child but it wasn’t until she attended University College in Dublin to study architecture that she began to seriously study the game when she joined the chess team there.

Irina Krush, Elizabeth Shaughnessy, and Hikaru Nakamura

Elizabeth with Grandmaster Irina Krush (highest ranked U.S. women, six-time U.S. Women Champion, and BCS Master Class Instructor Alum) and Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura (highest ranked US Chess Player, and 2 time US Chess Champion).

In 1969 she played in her first chess Olympiad in Lublin, Poland. In 1970 she became the Irish Women’s chess champion. After graduating, Elizabeth went to Yugoslavia to be part of the international team that built New Belgrade.

In addition to starting the Berkeley Chess School Elizabeth served on the Berkeley School Board beginning in 1986. She and the other school board members were able to dispense of the state bankruptcy overseer and get the books back in the black within one year.

In 2002, Elizabeth was elected to the board of CalChess, where she served as President from 2003–2005. She was also elected to serve on the board of the United States Chess Federation in 2004.

Berkeley Chess SchoolWhat inspired you to start the Berkeley Chess School?

In September 1981,The Principal at Oxford, my children’s (K – 3) elementary school in Berkeley, asked the parents to offer free classes after school. The only expertise I had for such a request was to teach them chess so that is what I offered.

I was at that time Irish Woman’s Champion.

The class started in January 1982. I brought 6 board and sets to the class. I had expected about 10 students and thought they would be all boys. To my amazement 72 children showed up and about a dozen parents! The make up of the children was another surprise to me. They were 50% girls and 50% African American. I survived that day – some parents had brought cookies and drinks – and offered the class on two, instead of one day. I quickly got more boards and sets and a demo board and taught 36 eager, smart students. It was very exciting.

Berkeley Chess School

Word quickly spread in Berkeley and in no time I had requests to teach chess in other Berkeley schools. I found myself teaching 5 days a week and there were still more requests, I decided to go to the Berkeley Chess Club and ask for volunteers to teach in the schools I couldn’t do. Nobody was willing to do that but several men said they would do it if they were paid. I then went to the district- wide PTA and requested funds to cover the cost of an instructor. The answer was no, but the parents made it clear that they wanted chess classes for their own children and were willing to pay for it. I decided that I could charge the parents who could pay enough to cover the chess instructor and those who could not afford to pay could attend for free. The Berkeley Schools were and are integrated and the students are bussed to their school so we are never dealing with a school where all the parents are in a similar wage bracket.

So, the Berkeley Chess School was born. I first called it Chess in the Schools but that name was subsequently used by another organization, based in New York, so I changed the name to Berkeley Chess School. It became a 501(c)3 in 1995.

Berkeley Chess School

Why should children learn chess?

It is well documented that chess improves memory and critical thinking skills in all humans, including children.

Berkeley Chess School receives funds from Foundations, philanthropists and our own chess community to teach chess in Title One schools in Oakland and Richmond (in the schools we teach the student body is between 90 to 99% free lunch). We teach in the classrooms during the school day. The students do not elect to take chess, they just get it. The classrooms are randomly selected. In the 2011 – 2012 school year we engaged the firm of Kensington Research Group to do a study to ascertain the influence of chess on the test scores of these children. Jean Quan, the Mayor of Oakland, picked the names from a drum of the classes that would receive chess.  The study showed the average math California Standardized Test (CTS) score increased by 18 at the end of the 3rd grade, compared to an increase of only 7 for those not receiving chess instruction. The Chess group “won” by 11 points. In English Language Arts the chess students average score decreased by 5 at the end of the 3rd grade, compared to a decrease of 17 for those not receiving chess instruction. The chess group “won” by 12 points.

Benefits of Chess

In addition to the Kensington Research Group’s study, the University of California at Berkeley, in the 2012-2013 school year conducted a study to ascertain the affects of chess instruction on reasoning.  On average, the BCS students (5th grade) showed the same improvement on a difficult reasoning test over the course of 4 months that the participants in a separate longitudinal study showed over 18 months. This is a very large difference in rate of growth! It is also unexpected, since the BCS group is uniformly low-SES and the comparison group tends to be high-SES.

It almost goes without saying that the behavior of the chess students improved. The attendance also improved and the testimonials we received from the classroom teachers were glowing.

That is why children should learn chess!

I read that in one of your classes, kindergartners were playing blindfold chess. How important is expectations in education?

I served for 8 years on the Berkeley School Board in addition to having founded BCS. I am not a psychologist and can only say what I have personally observed with my own children, the chess students and the students and classrooms with which I was involved while on the school board. IMO expectations from parents,  teachers and siblings make an enormous difference in a child’s development. As teens the expectations of peers become important and even as adults the expectations of our spouses, friends, and work colleagues influence our behavior.

I use the example of kindergartners being able to play blindfold chess to illustrate that children, even that young, will rise to expectations and that often adults simply do not expect enough. I have also noticed that what is expected of daughters in chess is often much lower than what is expected of sons.

How important is chess education in Title 1 schools?

Our experience as mentioned above illustrates that chess can make a huge difference in Title One schools. In California students in Title One Schools are largely children of immigrant parents whose first language is not English. So, the English Language Arts results are especially interesting. As a society we cannot afford to ignore this segment of our society. I would like to see mandatory chess instruction in all Title One Schools.

BCS Girls Tournament

Why does the Berkeley Chess School sponsor a girls only chess tournament?

Because girls enjoy it much more than “mixed” tournaments and because it prepares them to play in the California Girls State Championships.

Are there inherent differences in chess-playing skill by gender?

No, not inherent but there are differences. Traditionally, young girls were not involved in competitive win/lose games, but rather played “house” with dolls etc. They were taught to be more social, to “get along” with others. They did not learn, as boys do, at a young age that when you lose you live to play another day. So, they are more inclined to quit than the boys are. They usually say it is boring, but the truth is they cannot handle losing. That is changing but slowly.

Judit Polgar and Elizabeth Shaughnessy

Elizabeth with Grandmaster Judit Polgar, the strongest female player in history.

Our girls tournament is a much more pleasant affair than the regular tournaments. The girls make friends with their opponents. The boys, while they may not hate the people who have just beaten them, have certainly no desire to become friends. Only once have I seen a parent chastise a girl for losing. I have seen it happen hundreds of times with boys. Expectations? Of course! Are girls more intelligent than boys? I don’t think so, nor is the contrary true. But they are different!

And as for the woman who become really good – they have a choice between becoming great chess players or becoming mothers. They usually choose to become mothers and fairly decent chess players but not great. FIDE is a disgrace in terms of accommodation the needs of new mothers.

BCS Girls Tournament

What should we do to make chess more popular among girls?

The answer to this question has evaded me over the course of 33 years teaching chess in schools. I was a female role model for years. It made no difference.

Involving them in competitive games from an early age is a start. Making chess more social is a must while we are waiting for generations of indoctrination to change. One of the best things the USCF did was to combine the Denker with the Girls Championships at the National Championships. The girls now all want to qualify for that Tournament because there is social aspect to it. And the boys love it too.

Lean In by Sheryl SandbergIn Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes:

Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.

Do you agree?

Yes if they do just that, i.e remain true to who they are while they lead. Women who gain power because they do the same as men only better, do not help women become leaders.

She continues:

In addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves….

My argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power.

Do you agree that getting rid of internal barriers is critical to gaining power?

Yes, just so long as we understand that that does not mean we have to be the same as men.

Yes, but we must acknowledge that women are inherently different and will do things differently and that that is good.

What is your favorite chess accomplishment and why?

Starting and growing BCS. Because it has brought chess into thousands of lives which can only have improved society.

Sam Shankland and his 2014 Gold medal

Former BCS student Sam Shankland and his 2014 Gold medal.

What do think of Sam Shankland’s performance at the recent Chess Olympiad in Tromsø?

Go Sam!!! Show ‘em what you got!

Garry Kasparov and Elizabeth Shaughnessy

Garry Kasparov and Elizabeth Shaughnessy

What is your fondest memory playing at an Olympiad?

Winning a half way decent game in Bled, Slovenia

Kissing Gary Kasparov at Khantymansisk, Siberia.

Thank you for your time. Is there any else that you would like people to know?

Yes. Just a plug for what we do and have done.

BCS teaches chess in 150 schools, to over 6000 kids a year. We teach students in low income, high income and every income in between! We teach in public schools, private schools, charter schools, religious schools, home schoolers, boys and girl’s clubs, libraries and recreation departments.

We have two GM alumni, one, Sam Shankland who has just won a gold medal at Tromso and the other, Jon Ludwig Hammer, whose father was a visiting professor in Berkeley while Jon and his sister were in Elementary school (Oxford as it happens) and who was second for Magnus Carlson at the 2014 World Championship. We have at present Josiah Stearman, the youngest Master in the country. All great and ……….

Berkeley Chess School, to my knowledge created, the sustainable model of paying teachers from fees charged to parents. That is now so much the norm that it is hard to imagine that before 1982, nobody did this.

Before then as now there were dads teaching in their son’s schools and maybe continuing (but mostly not) after their sons had graduated. There were teachers who taught chess at their school. There were wealthy people who paid GMs or Masters to teach chess often in inner city schools and of course there were always private lessons. The current Chess in the Schools program is well endowed and teaches in low-income schools. The big difference is that all of these models were and are free of charge to the students and are mostly unsustainable.

Thanks for asking!!


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