Standing next to a table of four boys, Kids for Chess Volunteer Instructor Saurav Sharma watched as Ryan Ton moved a knight across the chess board, diagonally.
“Stop,” Sharma said. “Think about how your knight can move. It can only move in an ‘L’ shape.”
As Ton moved his piece back, contemplating another move, Sharma interjected again.
“Actually, it’s a draw,” he said to Ton and the boy’s opponent. “Neither of you can make any other moves.”
As the game concluded, the boys dispersed to other tables in Chattahoochee Elementary School’s media center, looking for new teammates to play with.
While many children were outside playing sports, or perhaps indoors playing video games during the last few weeks of summer break, for the last week, nearly two dozen students — including the boys Sharma was helping teach — have spent their time playing chess as part of Gautam Desai’s annual chess camp.
Started last year by the rising Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology senior, the camp was borne out of Desai’s own love of chess, as well as a desire to give back.
“This is the third chess camp; we did one earlier this summer and then one last year,” Desai said. “I know a lot of kids play video games, and I feel like it’s just not a good use of time. Chess is proven by research to help your critical thinking skills and help with your problem-solving skills, which are all really important to develop at a young age.
“So, last summer, I started teaching chess camps in Suwanee and raised money; most of it went to Rainbow Village. They help victims of poverty, homelessness and domestic violence. It’s an important charity.”
This year, the money Desai has raised through both camps is again going to Rainbow Village, though some will also go to his old school — Chattahoochee Elementary.
In the long run, he said he hopes to be able to provide chess boards to schools across Georgia, specifically ones in the non-metro area.
“I was blessed to go to one of the better-off elementary schools in Gwinnett,” Desai said. “We had lots of chess sets when I attended this school, and our chess club was very well funded.
“But there are lots of schools in rural counties in Georgia where they don’t have access to any chess sets and students don’t even know where they can play these kinds of games and do something productive with their time, so that’s a long-term goal.”
In the short-term, Desai said he’s glad he can give back to local organizations and entities — something Rainbow Village Development Director Justice French said he’s also appreciative of.
“Truthfully, (Desai’s camp) has been my favorite story to tell to people over the last year,” French said. “To have someone who set out to partner with us, this early and in this stage of life, is incredible. It’s really been my favorite story to share, and I think it motivates people in the community to say, ‘Gosh, I’m 50 and I’m not even doing this much for my community.’ It’s really inspiring.”
Desai said, for him, it’s rewarding to hear that people are inspired — but it’s also rewarding to see the changes that come about after kids begin playing chess.
“The camp is four days, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.,” Desai said. “For some of the kids, they’ve come in and had some attention problems and focus problems at the beginning of camp — they didn’t really want to sit down and play the game — but at the end of the camp, their focus and discipline was so developed to the point where they were excited to sit down and put away their phone and just play the game. It’s great to see.”
Rainbow Village’s Community Engagement Director Michelle Alcorn said while any aid is appreciated, for it to come from an organization that helps kids the way Desai described makes it even better.
“Because we serve families, there’s a big focus to address the needs of students, and our goal, just like (Desai’s), is to share opportunities that our kids may not ever have an opportunity to participate in,” Alcorn said. “What (Desai) is doing in the lives of these young people is the same exact thing we’re trying to do.
“He’s just a great example of being a servant heart that the community needs. We need more people who have a heart and can look out beyond their own lives.”
Desai has expanded his camp into the nonprofit Kids for Chess. For more information, visit kidsforchess.org.