For the last several weeks, I've had a series of long and intense conversations with a fellow named Jerry Neugarten about the state of chess in the Chicago Public Schools.
I know that sounds like an odd topic for me, given my obsession with the greater financial state of things, like the money pit Mayor Rahm Emanuel is currently digging with hundreds of millions of your public dollars in the South Loop.
You know it as the DePaul basketball arena plan, though we can't forget that there are also a couple of hotels involved.
Still, there's a connection between chess in the public schools and the South Loop deal, because the more money the mayor pours into real estate schemes, the less is available for programs that help kids.
But before I get into that, let me say a word or two about Neugarten. He's a 65-year-old retired lawyer who grew up in Hyde Park, lives in Highland Park, and loves chess—and I mean loves.
Like many other chess devotees, he's almost fanatical in his appreciation for what the game can do for children, especially underprivileged kids from low-income communities.
"Chess forces you to rivet your attention," says Neugarten, an active member of the Illinois Chess Association, the largest chess group in the state. "It teaches you to slow down and think out your choices. Isn't that what so many kids need to learn to do? We need to bring more chess to CPS."
That was the spirit in which he began his great trek through the bureaucracy of Chicago in the spring of 2010.
This was at the end of Mayor Daley's reign, when Ron Huberman was running the school system. Through a friend of a friend, Neugarten wound up talking to a Huberman aide, who put him in touch with another Huberman aide.
Neugarten told the aide what he pretty much tells everyone: There's not nearly enough chess in the city.
Oh, yes, a handful of schools have outstanding teams. Why, just last year Whitney Young won the state championship, led by Sam Schmakel, one of the top youth chess players in the country.
But only seven of CPS's 106 high schools fielded a team in the state tournament. And the sad fact is that the overwhelming majority of kids in Chicago will go through school never getting the chance to learn the lessons that chess can teach them because their schools don't have teams.
So when Neugarten met with Huberman's aide, he let him know that the ICA was willing to create a team for every CPS school that wanted one. And it wouldn't cost CPS a dime—the association would raise the money to pay for coaches, chessboards, and even buses to tournaments.
Neugarten says he wasn't the only one pushing the idea—fellow ICA member Michael Cardinale was also working to make it happen. "All we needed was approval from CPS or the mayor."
Unfortunately, their timing couldn't have been worse. By the end of 2010, Huberman and his aides had moved on. Mayor Daley, of course, was soon to follow.
So in the spring of 2011, after Mayor Emanuel took over, Cardinale got in touch with Mark Angelson, a mayoral aide, who put them in touch with another mayoral aide, who in turn put them in touch with a CPS official, who eventually sent them to yet another mayoral aide.
One thing about our mayor: he never runs out of aides.
For months—well into the summer of 2012—Neugarten and Cardinale advanced their campaign. While laying out the idea to various aides, they rounded up letters of support—addressed and sent to Mayor Emanuel—from coaches, grand masters, even Sam Schmakel's mother, Eileen.
"We will do all the work, we will pay for everything, everyone will love you and it will look good on your resume," she wrote.
Great line, Mrs. Schmakel!
Alas, the mayor didn't sign on to the proposal or even start his own citywide program.
By the summer of 2013 it was obvious to Neugarten that at least another year would come and go without chess for the vast majority of public school kids in Chicago.
"It's a big, cumbersome, unmovable bureaucracy," says Michael Zacate, a retired high school chess coach and an ally of Neugarten's in the ICA. "Anything that requires substantial change is a real problem."
So Neugarten and his fellow advocates decided to take their campaign public, starting with an appeal posted August 25 on the Illinois Chess Association's website: "Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public Schools frequently speak about the pursuit of excellence for our children. Their intentions are good, but bureaucracy, budget woes and special interests often get in the way."
"Chess teaches you to slow down and think out your choices," says chess advocate Jerry Neugarten. "Isn't that what so many kids need to learn to do?"
On September 3, Ted Cox, City Hall reporter for DNAinfo Chicago, picked up the story. "The state's top chess agency has been offering for years to totally fund and organize a citywide program in Chicago schools, but the Mayor's Office and Chicago Public Schools have yet to take them up on their offer."
WBEZ then invited Neugarten to come on the air to talk about the matter.
By this point it had become a public relations problem, and the mayor did what he generally does in such cases: he sent out a press statement blaming everything on budget shortfalls. "CPS is in a financial crisis and we don't have the amount of money ICA is seeking to provide the program."
Even though the association promised to pick up all the costs.
Emanuel's press statement also said the "mayor has directed CPS to work with chess providers across the city to explore their potential partnership."
Translation: Hey, Neugarten, we'll farm this sucker out to a Cossack from Russia before we give it to a troublemaker like you!
Well, I try to be very sympathetic to my mayor. Really—every day I try to see the world as he might see it. So I understand why he'd be reluctant to let any group—even ICA—have so much responsibility over what should be a public program.
In fact, I'll go one step further. As much as I appreciate the offer from Neugarten and the chess association, I don't believe the children of Chicago should have to rely on the kindness of strangers for a chess program. They should get chess as a matter of course—out of the billions of tax dollars we pay every year. And if ICA should be so generous to help out, then more power to them.
And that brings me back to that South Loop deal.
How can a city be so rich that it can afford to dump hundreds of millions of dollars into a money pit while being unable to afford chess for its public schools? Or art, music, or drama, while we're on the subject?
Why must we pretend we're a destitute third-world city when it comes to public education, but when it comes to subsidizing an arena for DePaul and some hotels, it's about letting the good times roll?
Yo, Mr. Mayor—when you're done answering that, dig into the slush fund and find some money for public school chess. We'll pretend it was your idea all along—just like Mrs. Schmakel said.