How does someone go from being a D-average student to graduating in the top 10% of their class at Harvard University? For South African-born New Yorker David Berman, the answer is black and white: the game of chess.
Through his organization, Chess for Change, which he launched in 2006, Berman estimates that some 500,000 South African children have benefited from learning the ancient board game that he believes is one of the most cost-effective ways of educating children in the early years.
Berman says the beauty of chess is that “it is simply the best exercise for the brain, and you can be rich or poor, and it doesn’t matter where you come from. Chess will certainly help you get somewhere in life.”
The philosophy behind Chess for Change is essentially educational. “We adopted a top-down and bottoms-up approach,” says the 57-year-old Berman. “I tried to educate the nation that chess is not just a game for geeks, but the best exercise for the brain, and all evidence conclusively proves that this changes lives. There have been studies done around the world that prove that kids who play chess get higher results on intelligence tests and consistently better grades than those who don’t.”
Chess for Change, a US Section 501 (C)(3) organization, currently teaches some 7,500 pupils a week from age five to 10, in an attempt to make an early impact on them and their careers. Through Berman’s efforts other organizations have adopted the approach from Cape Town to Pretoria to Soweto, and see similar success rates with their pupils.
Now a successful hedge-fund manager who splits his time between Cape Town and New York, Berman grew up in Durban. His dad introduced him to chess while on holiday in the Drakensberg, and then, to get away from the bullies at his Jewish day school Carmel College in Durban, Berman would often go to the library and play – a game that ultimately helped him develop the cognitive skills needed to become “The King of the Retail Jungle,” as Fortune magazine dubbed him.
He believes that it was years of playing and excelling in chess as a boy that enabled him to excel at college and then in business in New York. For the past 10 years, he has been on a crusade to change the face of education in South Africa by teaching children the 1,500-year-old board game believed to have originated in India, which many consider the best board game ever invented.
To help inspire the nation, Berman even got a string of chess stars to South Africa, including Grandmaster Maurice Ashley, the only US African-American Grandmaster, and former world champion Grandmaster Garry Kasparov. Extensive media coverage helped spread the word to inspire parents, and young children got excited about the game. Now, so popular has chess become that at the annual chess nationals, 2,000 children compete for national teams.
“I played a ton of chess in school and I suppose got about as good as you can without lessons,” says Berman. “The question I asked was how was I able to achieve my academic successes after being a D student? The answer in my mind, I am convinced, was because of chess. Chess directed my brain to develop and think in a certain way.”
The revelation of how chess could serve as a catalyst as an educational tool came about through a series of breakthroughs in Berman’s academic career. During his matriculation year, with just two months left before finals, Berman went from a D average in trials to a B average, shifting his grades up 20% in every subject. Later, at the University of Cape Town, his “brain cells were ready through chess,” he says, and he graduated as one of the top students. Finally, at Harvard, he received an MBA and graduated with distinction before starting what became a lucrative career in business.
It was after Berman got married in New York that he decided to share his experience with his six children, teaching them beginning from the age of three – and thousands of other children across South Africa.
“I did some research and got my own kids to play chess. For me, it was a no-brainer: if they played chess, they would become smarter. It wasn’t genetic, it was just hard work.”
The proof is exemplified by his own offspring: out of six children, four have been placed in the top 15 in the US in their age categories and won trophies in US national tournaments. Berman’s eldest son, 20-year-old Jacob, represented South Africa in chess championships in China, India, Dubai and Hungary, and is now studying at Princeton, a school he got into largely through chess. A younger son, Nate, was ranked second by rating in the US at the age of six.
“I realized that chess was an incredible way to educate children and felt I needed to make that count where it mattered,” Berman says.
And so the seeds for Chess for Change, an initiative that would impact hundreds of thousands of youngsters, took root.
In 2005, Knights of the South Bronx, a movie starring Ted Danson as a down-on-his-luck schoolteacher who uses chess to uplift the kids in a crime-riddled community, was released. The film was based on the true story of David MacEnulty and the chess lessons he brought to Bronx Community Elementary School. The kids at the school went on to win a state championship, and their grades also improved dramatically.
While at a chess tournament, Berman briefly met MacEnulty and a plan began to brew in his mind.
“I phoned him up one day and I said to him, ‘why don’t I bring you across to South Africa and you start teaching chess over there?’ He thought I was mad because we had met for five minutes but he said, ‘sure, why not,’” Berman recalls.
With MacEnulty at his side, David went on to show Knights of the South Bronx to about 3,000 kids in one week. The movie helped them warm to the idea of playing chess, and also showed parents and teachers what the game could do for students. Thereafter, David started Chess for Change. Berman’s approach to his mission had two sides. The first was to educate the nation about the benefits of chess so that everybody in the country would want to get their kids to play.
“This was not because it was a fun game, but because it was going to change their brain for the better. This meant it had to be seen and heard on media platforms – on TV and in the newspaper.”
Word of Chess for Change got around and Carte Blanche picked up the story, as did various publications. The organization attracted public relation firms to help at no cost. Berman increased the momentum by bringing in chess masters and celebrities to South Africa to draw attention to the game. Chess organizations started to spring up in communities all over the country, taking the lead from Chess for Change.
The second goal for Berman was expanding the organization itself. Chess for Change now employs between five and 10 teachers who visit schools all over South Africa. “We got a huge amount of publicity,” he says. “The last time I counted, some 49 articles were written about what we were doing and achieving.”
Between 5,000 and 15,000 school children have been taught chess each week for the last 10 years just at Chess for Change, Berman says, and then there are other groups that started due to their publicity. The “chess bug” soon spread across the country.
Chess for Change now teaches in schools in both underprivileged areas as well as in more affluent locations. Every month David receives reports from his teachers – even when he is doing business in New York. These reports are important for keeping track of the initiative, but also contain heart-warming – and sometimes gut-wrenching – messages that keep Berman and his team motivated.
In one, a teacher recounts how the learners needed the game after a spate of killings in the Worcester area: “Gang violence is still rampant… two children were killed and many other people were injured… Learners need to learn to turn violent behavior into positive release and I reminded them to take part in fighting war on the chessboard. Many learners do not have much materially, but by winning in chess, it boosts their self-esteem.”
Another teacher in Mitchells Plain wrote: “There is such an insatiable hunger for chess amongst the learners that they are willing to forfeit their breaks in order to play chess. More and more learners are literally running to the library during the intervals to play chess that it has become impossible to accommodate all of them!”
In the Lukanuo Primary School in the South African beach resort of Hermanus, headmaster Maurice Tshabalala reported that after only a year of learning chess, the third grade pupils’ math test scores jumped from the 24th percentile in the Cape province to the 60th percentile.
“I am convinced that chess played a major role in this,” Tshabalala says.
When asked what the future holds for Chess for Change, Berman says his dream is for every child in South Africa to learn to play chess.
Berman himself believes he owes so much to the game of chess. And he is now giving back.
“I feel sorry for anyone I meet who has kids, because I go into a whole tirade about chess,” he says with a laugh. “But I truly believe that everyone who can should just play chess, and the earlier the better. It can really change your life, as it did mine.”