By Kysa Anderson Daniels
To a dozen eager students at Sparks Christian Urban Academy, Clovis Simons is the ultimate rock star. Each week, he fills a tiny one-room school in south DeKalb County with cheers and applause.
He isn’t riffing on a shiny, amped-up guitar, though. He’s teaching the kids the art of chess.
At 23, Simons is a nationally ranked chess player studying engineering at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College.
The majority of the students he mentors at Sparks attend through the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, which provides alternative schooling options for public school students.
Lead teacher Beverly Robinson says since Simons became a regular guest her students think more critically and solve problems more effectively. She also attributes a growth in their social skills to Simons’ chess lessons. They have “learned to be gracious winners and losers,” she said.
To 13-year-old Kelvinyanna Jones and other Sparks students, he’s just “Coach Chris,” (a nod to his middle name), chess master. Under Coach Chris’ guidance, they have the chance to participate in Atlanta-area tournaments.
“He’s a fun teacher and a good teacher,” Jones said. “I want to keep on playing chess because you have to think wisely.”
Simons has learned a lot from the game, too. He’s grown his interpersonal skills, become more organized and learned to solve problems with tact — strengths that have helped him in his studies. Perhaps the biggest boost, he says, is that the strategic thinking chess requires has helped dramatically reduce the time it takes him to study.
He played chess competitively for about three years after challenging a fellow Perimeter student to a game in the commons area of the Dunwoody Campus. Simons recalls losing miserably and setting a goal to improve.
“He made several remarks about how terrible I was,” Simons said of his opponent. “It was good, though. If that hadn’t happened, I never would have gotten into chess seriously.”
Now, in addition to teaching at Sparks and other DeKalb County schools, Simons regularly speaks to leadership, business networking, civic and youth groups about the benefits of playing chess. He’s also a tournament director in the United States Chess Federation and is ranked in the top 20 percent of chess players nationally. And, in partnership with local nonprofit Unconditional Love for Children, he teaches competitive chess to students grades K-12.
When Simons graduates from Perimeter in December, he plans to transfer to a four-year program and work toward a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He’ll also continue to spread his passion for chess.
“I am hoping that even more children will acquire an interest in and excitement about chess,” he said.
Photos by Carolyn Richardson