By Shirley Hawkins
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Damen Fletcher is on a mission to sharpen the critical thinking skills of young people to assist them in succeeding in school and in life.
The founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization the Train of Thought Chess Academy, Fletcher says that drugs and gangs were prevalent in his neighborhood when he was growing up in Compton.
“Many of my friends joined gangs or began selling drugs or using drugs,” he said. “Years later, they were either incarcerated or dead.”
Luckily, Fletcher escaped the streets. He was introduced to the game of chess at the age of 13.
“My best friend taught me how to play and I instantly fell in love with the game,” Fletcher said. “My friend and I played the game every day.”
Chess has had a remarkable effect on Fletcher.
“Now when I’m faced with a life challenge, I look at how those challenges would look on a chess board,” he said. “Then I think deeply and transfer a solution from the board to real life.
“Chess teaches one to analyze all of the options so that you can choose the one that is most likely to produce the result that you want,” Fletcher added. “It gave me the opportunity to fix and strengthen mental areas where I was weak and it improved my critical thinking skills like concentration, visualization, problem solving and divergent thinking, which is thinking of more than one solution to a problem.”
The Train of Thought program, which has trained 150,000 kids since its inception, held its first Southern California Scholastic Chess Tournament in June at the Compton Sheriff’s Station.
Kids competed for $20,000 in scholarships and also competed for medals and prizes, Fletcher said.
Andre, 13, won more than $3,000 in scholarship money during the tournament.
“I love Train of Thought,” he said. “It’s helped me to improve my life in so many ways. Coach Fletcher has been a great mentor to me. He’s not only teaching us the game of chess, he’s teaching us the game of life.”
Fletcher believes that the benefits of chess are so powerful that 16 years ago he was determined to teach chess to underserved children. He started out teaching the game to foster kids.
In 2006, Fletcher established a fledgling after-school chess program in Compton with just a few students. Word rapidly spread about his program and soon dozens of young people were waging battle on the chessboard. His program continued to grow in popularity.
“Then I was contacted in 2013 by Vielka McFarland, the owner of Solarity, a family of charter schools and I was recruited to bring my chess program to 10 schools in L.A. County,” Fletcher said. “After three years, all of the schools had improved in academic performance,” Fletcher said.
The Train of Thought program is currently used in Los Angeles Unified, Compton Unified, Lennox Unified, Long Beach Unified and the Fresno school district. It has also been implemented in several charter schools.
“I was then commissioned by Solarity to bring the program to three of the lowest performing schools in the state of Louisiana,” Fletcher said.
Solarity implemented chess as a requirement for all students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Every student was required to spend 45 minutes a day playing chess.
‘These schools had been failing for 30 or 40 years,” Fletcher said. “I moved to Louisiana for eight years to make sure that the impact of chess was realized.
“I trained seven coaches and we taught about 1,200 kids and their schoolwork improved. By 2017, these three formerly low-performing schools became top schools and had the highest gains in the state in English and math,” Fletcher said.
“The Louisiana Board of Education even sent a representative to monitor the testing,” Fletcher said. “They were astonished when the test scores were tabulated and found that the scores had greatly improved. They could not imagine how these schools that had been failing state exams for decades were now performing well.
“The schools we worked with won the Top Gains award which is a badge of honor awarded to schools that the state recognizes have made specific gains academically in English and math,” he added.
Fletcher is currently busy recruiting potential coaches.
“I post ads on Indeed.com,” he said. “We have a great need for chess coaches right now and there are schools waiting for qualified coaches.
“Presently we have 17 coaches and we’re still hiring to meet the demands of the program. We’re hiring here in Los Angeles, where the need is the greatest, but we’re also hiring for positions in Fresno, Atlanta and Baton Rouge.
Fletcher said that potential candidates do not have to have prior experience.
“It takes 25 hours of training to become a coach and then they are ready,” he said, adding that he teaches potential candidates virtually on Zoom.
The Train of Thought program recently expanded. Fletcher flew overseas and met with two people who wanted to start new branches — one in Paris and the other in Geneva, Switzerland.
“Chess players don’t give up,” Fletcher said. “Chess players fight like a tiger. … There are certain characteristics that you must summon within yourself when you play chess like confidence, courage, discipline and perseverance. With the right coaching and encouragement in playing chess it can be eye opening for students who are trying to find their way through life’s challenges.
“A chess player becomes a very strategic player,” he added. “They reason, ‘If I create the right opportunity at the right time, then I can fight my way out of this situation on the chessboard.’ It’s an incredible skill to have — a skill that they can use to perform better in life and in school.”
Fletcher’s program continues to gain attention.
“A producer from CBS called me and said they wanted to feature Train of Thought on the CBS Evening News,” he said. “CBS filmed two segments of our program which attracted a large national audience and it generated overwhelming interest.”
Asked which chess piece he favored the most, Fletcher didn’t hesitate.
“The knight is my favorite chess piece and I actually operate like a knight in real life,” he said. “It has an unpredictable style of moving around on the board. It is not a follower and it blazes its own trail.
“The knight doesn’t allow any obstacles to stand in its way. It is the only piece that can jump over any other piece on the board and it is going to find a way to get to its destination. It always finds another way. It’s a characteristic that kids need in order to meet the challenges that they will face in the future.
“Kids need to be able to persevere when met with opposition. Kids can practice that skill on the chess board and learn to persevere when they face their opponents,” he said. “They have to face that obstacle everyday. Chess teaches them that they can beat their opponen. They just have to be determined and disciplined.”
The Train of Thought program can be contacted online at chesstrain.org.
Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.