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Today is November 22, 2019

Champions of Chess

the game that’s cutting across the academic curriculum

By Elissa Fulton

Champions of Chess

The Franklin County Chess Center, located right in the heart of Meadville, is a one-of-a-kind chess facility dedicated to the educational development of students in the Franklin County School District. In a town of approximately 500 residents, the center has earned national media attention and has appeared on the “60 Minutes” television program.

Since 2016, dozens of students have learned chess under the tutelage of Dr. Jeff Bulington. Fondly referred to as Dr. B by his students, he understands the scholastic limitations of growing up in a small, rural community.

Bulington grew up in Indiana, playing chess from a young age and throughout his formative years. He went on to earn his Ph.D. and taught logic at Purdue University in Indiana. In 2015, while teaching math in Memphis, Tenn., he was sought out by an anonymous donor of the Southwest Mississippi Chess Foundation. Intrigued, Bulington accepted the task of determining if a chess program would be valuable to the students in the Meadville area. When he concluded it would be, he was asked to take the lead in implementing the now successful Franklin County Chess Center.

“This is a totally unique non-profit scholastic chess center,” said Bulington. “The students have to be willing to come in and do the work and do well in school, but otherwise, it is completely free and available to the students in the schools. Chess helps to improve study skills, helps students to focus and teaches them the importance of preparing. It also teaches them the importance of failure and persevering when things aren’t going so well because growth involves failure and that’s an important thing to learn early on.”

The program begins in kindergarten and extends through the twelfth grade. The students come to the center after the school day, and the program is recognized as a class on the student’s curriculum.

“Skill level and age are not necessarily directly correlated,” said Bulington. “Years of experience is important. There may be second graders that play better than high school students just starting out.”

Bulington has always loved playing chess; and though he didn’t realize that teaching chess as a career was a possibility when he was in school, as the executive director of the Southwest Mississippi Chess Foundation, he knows this would have been the very career he would have chosen.

“Chess is a scholastic game,” said Bulington. “It’s geometrical, and it’s pattern recognition. And sometimes people that are good at storytelling are good at chess. It doesn’t always have to be the mathematical or logical way. Some of the best chess players have a background in literature. Chess really cuts across the school curriculum.”

When Dr. B begins teaching his students, he tells them stories because stories are easy to remember. “I use the chessboard sort of like a theater where these little dramas play out,” he said.

Since opening the Franklin County Chess Center in October 2016, the students have gone on to win several state tournaments and played in cities like Chicago, Ill. and Philadelphia, Penn. Recently, the Mississippi High School Activities Association named chess as an official sport.

“I think chess is growing as a mind sport in the United States,” said Bulington. “Over the last two decades it has steadily grown, and I believe it will continue to grow as people recognize its educational value.”

The chess center has recently worked with the University of Mississippi offering workshops for teachers to earn certification in chess. Workshops were held in Oxford in July and at the chess center in Meadville in late October.

Visit www.franklinchess.com for more information about the Franklin County Chess Center and the Southwest Mississippi Chess Foundation.

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