Chess With A Purpose: Inside Durham’s Bow Tie Kings 

By: Jordan Meadows, Staff Writer

Blending the strategy of chess with invaluable life lessons for young minds, The Bow Tie Kings Chess Club in Durham is not just about moving pieces on a board; it’s about nurturing critical thinking, respect, and self-control among its members.

Facilitated by Glen Fisher, a mentor with a passion for both chess and guiding young lives, the club sessions kick off with meditation and prayer, setting a reflective tone for the day’s session.

Fisher established the Bow Tie Kings Chess Club in February 2023. The initial spark for this initiative was  in 2018 during a conversation with a friend, who described the behavioral challenges faced by black boys in school. The idea was approved as a community service program, which allowed him to use the Masonic Temple as a meeting location.

“The purpose of this program is to teach young African-American boys life skills through the game of chess. To equip them with cognitive, mental, emotional  and spiritual tools they will carry with them into manhood,” Fisher said. “This is something I and many other Black men didn’t have when we were younger. The game of chess requires thinking before making moves. Therefore, I use the game of chess as a metaphor for making life choices.”

Roundtable-like discussions take place on weighty topics such as self-control, respect for women, and the importance of critical thinking. Fisher, a firm believer in the power of dialogue, encourages open communication and mutual respect among the group of 8 to 15-year-old black boys who gather there, most of which are from Durham.

“We respect everybody’s opinion. We can disagree with each other respectfully: we don’t ridicule or judge each other,” Fisher said. “Although we all have the same ancestry, we’re all black boys and men, we have to respect that we’re all still different – this is a safe space.”

The members find solace in open dialogue about their innermost struggles - be it depression, anxiety, or the trials of school and family life. Here, they create a sanctuary free from judgment or ridicule, where vulnerability is celebrated, not shunned.

One member eagerly anticipates his upcoming ninth birthday, while another shares his struggles with AP Psychology. Each revelation is met with empathy and understanding, fostering an environment where no triumph or tribulation goes unnoticed.

Fisher encourages the boys to be critical thinkers, both on and off the chessboard. He underscores the importance of questioning conventional wisdom, warning against the dangers of predictability. In his eyes, just as a predictable move in chess can lead to defeat, so too can predictable behavior in life open the door to manipulation and control.

“People who are predictable can be taken advantage of and can be set up,” Fisher said while revisiting their previous talks on self-control and handling tough situations. “Someone can see that you’re on a good track in life, and do something, knowing how you’re going to respond, just to get you in trouble,” Fisher said.

Respect for women is another cornerstone of the Bow Tie Kings Chess Club ethos. In a candid conversation, Fisher and the young members explore what it means to protect and respect women.

“Holding the door open for them!” one exclaimed. “Listening to them and not doing something they don’t like!” added another.

“What do you think black boys and men’s responsibilities towards women and girls are?” asked Fisher.

“To protect them!” they all confidently replied.

Fisher then inquired about what it means to protect women, and the young men responded by saying it involves treating them as individuals and defending them if they’re in trouble. Fisher emphasized that as a result, women should never have to fear black men and boys.

“We don’t want girls going into womanhood feeling like they can’t trust us, and you don’t want them to feel like we are the threat to them when they should look to us as protectors,” Fisher said. “Disrespecting a woman is a form of disrespecting yourself because we all came from one: you wouldn’t do that to your mom, would you? And you wouldn’t want to see that done to her by another man, would you” Fisher asked.

“No!” the youngsters responded.

“You don’t want to be what you don’t want to see,” Fisher concluded.

Fisher explained to the group that in chess, unexpected moves may occur where it seems like you’re losing pieces or need to compensate, but it’s essential to maintain composure and respond critically and calmly, exercising self-control and strategic thinking to retain the upper hand.

“The chess board represents our environment; people always use their environment as an excuse for the type of decisions they make,” Fisher said.

He proceeded to educate the class on the names and significance of each chess piece, the board’s dimensions, terminology for rows and columns, the movement capabilities of each piece, and strategies for protecting key pieces.

“You can either run, block, or eliminate the threat,” Fisher asserted. “And keep in mind, you’ll be in situations like that in real life, and sometimes you have to run in chess, and sometimes you have to run in life. That’s where critical thinking comes into play: people will set you up if you are what?” Fisher asked.

“Predictable!” the group answered.

As the discussions wind down, after they’ve grabbed some chips or cookies from the back table, the club transitions into the chess-playing portion of the session.

Amidst the soothing melodies of jazz and classical music, the young players shake hands and face off against one another, putting their newfound knowledge and critical thinking skills to the test. Even Fisher himself joins in the matches, reinforcing the camaraderie and spirit of learning that defines the Bow Tie Kings Chess Club.

Currently, Fisher sees five to ten kids per meeting, but he aims to triple that figure by the end of 2024. Ultimately, he envisions establishing a Bow Tie Kings Chess Club in every major city across the nation.

“If you touch it you move it – get in the mindset of thinking before you act,” Fisher said.

It’s not just about winning or losing on the chessboard; it’s about equipping these young minds with the tools they need to navigate life’s complexities with grace and resilience.

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