Camp brings diversity to game of chess

Six-year-old Justin Upton just learned how to play chess three weeks ago, and now he’s holding his own against kids twice his age.

The Naperville boy and his two older sisters are just a few of the kids participating in the series of chess summer camps sponsored by the DuPage NAACP and Elite Chess at Benedictine University in Lisle.

A bit of kismet brought them all together.

Jeff DiOrio, a dean at Naperville North High School and the school’s chess coach for the past five years, was looking for space to host chess tournaments in the area for his Elite Chess program. Among his contacts was Benedictine University, which for years was interested in partnering with the DuPage chapter of the NAACP to provide enrichment programs, like a chess camp, but they needed someone to run it. DiOrio was more than happy to assist.

“It was really serendipitous how it all came together,” DiOrio said.

The first year a total of 35 students were signed up for the 2012 camp. Most of the kids participated in the beginner’s session, which is geared for children who’ve never picked up a chess piece before.

DiOrio said children pick up the game fairly quickly. It takes about four to five hours of lessons on how to move the pieces before kids are able to play on their own.

“Unlike adults, kids are not intimidated,” he said.

As word spread and the program grew, more kids filled the spots in the intermediate and advanced camps.

“You know now to play the game, now let’s talk strategies,” DiOrio said. “That’s when it really starts to get fun.”

Whereas winning is the least of the priorities at the beginning and intermediate levels, the advanced camp is targeted to kids who are interested in competing in tournaments and want to win.

This year 70 campers were signed up for the three sessions, forcing DiOrio to put some families on waiting lists. Participants come from all over, including Naperville, Aurora, Bolingbrook, Lisle, Lombard, Plainfield, Wheaton and even Plano.

The growth of the chess program is exactly what Mario Lambert was looking to provide in the community.

“Mainly we feel there is a significant achievement gap between students of color and other students,” said Lambert, who is president of the DuPage chapter of the NAACP.

He said even though it’s just a game, chess can help close that gap because it teaches critical thinking skills as well as how to work on a team.

“The game of chess will add value to these children’s lives,” Lambert said.

Lambert stressed the chess program is not just available to kids in the African-American community. His goal is to reach out to a larger, diverse population in the key age group of kindergarten through eighth grade.

Lambert attributes the growth of the program not only to word of mouth, but also as a testament to the credibility the DuPage chapter is building in the community.

He said any organization can host a program, but the participants must see benefit and quality of the program for it to succeed. That is exactly what’s happening with chess camp.

Lambert said he’d love to grow the program even more, either by offering different types of similar summer camps or continuing chess opportunities throughout the year.

“We offer the program for free,” Lambert said. “But in order for us to push diversity in the game of chess we need sponsors.”

Even though he teaches the camp, DiOrio still watches in amazement at the enthusiasm his campers display in his classes. DiOrio didn’t start playing chess until he was in the fifth grade when his dad taught him how to play.

“These kids are learning chess three and four years before I learned it,” he said.

DiOrio he said he’d play with friends, but his school didn’t have a chess club until he bugged administrators enough to start one.

As a member of the football team and chess team in high school, DiOrio has long been an advocate of taking the chess subculture mainstream. His passion for the game continued after college, when he started teaching camps at Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove. Within two years he grew that program to 150 kids.

“Then it hit me. I’m making all these Downers Grove kids good chess players. I should do something closer to my school,” DiOrio said.

In 2012 he launched Elite Chess, a skills training company that caters to chess players.

“Chess has so much to offer kids and adults in today’s society. Through developing reasoning skills and inspiring creativity, chess helps you in school, at work, and in your personal life. I believe that everyone can and should learn the game of chess,” DiOrio said.

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