Making the Right Moves

By Rebecca Peters and Madeline Quasebarth

"In life, as in chess, forethought wins."
Charles Buxton

David Shifren is a knight. His life moves in one direction, shifts 90 degrees, continues on, then shifts again.

On the chessboard, a knight can move forward, backward, left or right, but only ever in the shape of the letter “L.” Knights are the only piece that can jump over the others.

Shifren grew up in Brooklyn, coming to Pittsburgh in 1989 to complete his Master’s in Fiction Writing at the University of Pittsburgh.

While working on a young adult novel about a pair of sleuths, Shifren arranged to ride along with City of Pittsburgh homicide detectives.   

He found the experiences “fascinating” and the course of his life changed direction when he applied to the police academy.  

“As an officer for some years now, I find gratifying the positive difference I sometimes can make in the lives of people having worse than just a bad day,” he said.

He could not stay away from writing for long, though, returning to teach a film class for Pitt’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

On November 3, 2015, Shifren’s interests took another turn, as he began teaching chess to 10-15 local children at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

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Moving through life as a knight allows him to stay grounded, take risks and hurdle obstacles.

A Pittsburgh Zone 4 patrol officer, Shifren patrols as far north as Shadyside and as far south as New Hazelwood. In the evenings, he runs the Pittsburgh Police Chess Club in Hazelwood. Other clubs are located in Beechview, Knoxville, Sheraden and South Oakland.

As a knight, Shifren aims to help the kids in his chess club move like pawns on a chess board: only forward, never backward. Chess encourages players to make it to the other side, from insecurity to confidence or from carelessness to thoughtfulness. The game allows for self-elevation, evolving from mere pawns to independent kings and queens.

As a cop, Shifren hopes to build healthy, trusting friendships between the police force and the community.

To raise public awareness of the club, Shifren posted flyers in the library and local businesses. He even handed out flyers while on police calls.

“If some appropriately aged juvenile was at hand; I’d speak first to the parents to describe the new program, and nearly all were receptive,” Shifren said.

According to Chess in the Schools, a New York based project aimed at fostering “the intellectual and social development of low-income youth through chess education,” the ancient game promotes emotional intelligence, analytical thinking, learning and “graceful” winning and losing.

Of a population of 6,584 residents, only 6.6 percent of Hazelwood’s population have completed high school as their highest level of educational attainment, compared to the Pittsburgh average of 27.8 percent.  However, 24.3 percent have completed a bachelor’s degree, compared to Pittsburgh’s average of 20.9 percent.

A year and a half after the first meeting, the club has maintained its crowd and the idea has spread into other neighborhoods. Although the club is open for residents ages 10 to 16, the oldest attendee is often only 13 or 14 years old.

Shifren depends on current attendees to spread the word and plans on promoting the club “through teen-oriented clubs and organizations, including neighborhood high schools and other positive, teen-friendly organizations like Hazelwood’s Center of Life,” he said.

He hopes to involve more police departments in the program, as well as establish partnerships with schools and educators.   

A 1997 study analyzing the intellectual effects of chess on third to fifth grade students found that, over time, “significant improvement in Math and Reading scores were found among the Regular track chess students.”

“I’d think that could be terrifically fruitful,” he said.

Aunisty Woodruff, 10, heard about the chess club at the Hazelwood Family Festival on May 20. Woodruff wanted to learn how to play chess, so she walked up to the table. Shifren taught her how to play right then and there.

“I don’t like being young. People treat me like a baby,” Woodruff said.

But on Tuesdays from 5 to 7 p.m., Woodruff plays against opponents three, four and, sometimes, 40 years her senior.

Fellow player Madelyne Rush, 13, sits across the board from Woodruff. Rush started playing one year ago, after the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Hazelwood relocated.

In the middle of their match, Rush’s smartphone rings. It’s her boyfriend, Leroy. He’s moving today. She ignores his call and continues to play.

Rush is well known in the club. Kendra Sapp, 9, admires Rush’s skills.

“Madelyne can even beat a computer!” Sapp said. “I’m pretty good now.”

Sapp likes that the rules stay the same for each match, so she can focus on getting better.

Sometimes at the end we get snacks and sometimes we win and when I lose I say in my mind ‘I need to learn more,’ she said.

Sapp interrupts Woodruff and Rush’s match to tell Rush “that was not a smart move.”

Rush loses and decides to return Leroy’s call.

Officer Shifren reminds Rush that no phones are allowed during chess club. She stands up, leaving Woodruff waiting for the next move.

How does chess make you a better student?

Woodruff: Mathematically. All of the pieces equal a number.

What advice would you give to a new player?

Sapp: What pieces mean, moves you can do, help them even if they lose the game and if they win I will still check it over with them.

Rush: The more you play chess the smarter you become.

Woodruff: “She [Rush] is cruel! She’s really cruel! She took my pawn!”

Rush laughs. Woodruff responds. 

Rush to her boyfriend on the phone: “Yeah, there’s no way I can get out of this.”

Rush said Shifren approached her and told her about the club and she’s come every Tuesday since.

“He is a really good teacher and this is a good thing for the community.”

The chess club competes for the children’s time with several other life variables, Shifren said. Sometimes the children move, other times sports practices cause a scheduling conflict, or the weather might be too cold to walk to the library or too nice outside to be inside. Even still, further societal factors interrupt their play time.

According to the City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety Bureau of Police 2014 Statistical Report, per 100 residents, Hazelwood had a crime rate of 10.86, compared to 1031.58 on the South Shore and 8.72 in South Oakland.

While peer pressure and general teenage mischief may draw attention away from the chess club, Shifren said the parents appreciate the club and encourage attendance, too.

“Parents do say one of the things they like best about Chess Club meetings is their consistency – that they’re something kids can count on, week after week, same time, same place,” he said.

Shifren has only missed two chess club meetings: Once for vacation and another to receive the 2015 Advocate of the Year Award for the chess club.

With new expansions, officers can substitute for each other as work and personal conflicts arise, allowing the club to remain a constant in the community.

An added benefit of the police force-led chess club is the connection between low-income communities and their local police force, Shifren said.

“I’ll ask about [the kids] reading habits, see chess kids at Hazelwood events, such as school football games, holiday parties, National Night Out celebrations and the Hazelwood Center of Life musical events,” Shifren said. “I have forged friendships with the kids.”

Writer & Web Producer: Rebecca Peters
Photographer & Web Producer: Madeline Quasebarth 

Disclaimer: the narrative expressed in the article is solely those of the author(s).
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