David Mehler has played chess for as long as he can remember.
“My father taught me the basics, but he was not a strong player,” Mehler said. “I was born here [in the D.C. area], but at 7, we moved to Wisconsin.”
At that time, Wisconsin was the center of American chess. The national organization, the U.S. Chess Federation, was founded in southern Wisconsin.
At about 8 years old, he began playing competitively.
“At that time, there weren’t very many strong young players. [Youngsters competing in chess] didn’t become a big thing until the late 1980s and really took off only in the early 1990s,” Mehler explained.
Today, though, as founder of the U.S. Chess Center in Silver Spring, Mehler spends his days teaching chess to children from ages 5 and 6 through high school. In fact, he attributes the 1992 movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer” for popularizing chess for children.
“That served as a catalyst. … When parents saw the movie, they thought, this is something that would be valuable for their children to learn. And that made a big difference,” he said.
The one-time litigation attorney began teaching chess around 1972, during the run-up to the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky match, which pitted U.S. challenger Fischer against the Soviet world champion.
“My students had some reasonable degree of success. So I was known as a chess teacher,” said Mehler, who has been a member of Tifereth Israel Congregation for more than 30 years. “I’ve always been known much more as a chess teacher than a chess player. I make terrible moves while I’m playing competitively, but I can teach kids not to follow my example.”
In 1989, at the invitation of Soviet-born grandmaster and world champion Garry Kasparov, Mehler taught District youths chess during a two-week summer camp program.
“Kasparov was interested in creating an organization that would use chess for social good, and he wanted someone with the reputation of being an effective teacher to run a program for children who lived in public housing in Washington, D.C.,” Mehler said.
“We wanted to show these kids that intellectual pursuits were not out of their grasp. They had just as much brain power as anyone else, and they should use it for constructive purposes,” he added.
“The enthusiasm they showed was fabulous. It was inspiring. They grasped the game quickly … developed the skills we wanted to see. They learned how to focus. They learned how to delay gratification. They were willing to behave in ways uncharacteristic for 10-year-olds,” the chess teacher recalled.
Then The Washington Post wrote an editorial comparing Mehler’s work at the chess camp to famed math educator Jaime Escalante, whose success with teaching calculus in Los Angeles to economically deprived kids was depicted in the movie “Stand and Deliver.” That attracted attention of some influential people in Washington, D.C., who, Mehler said, encouraged him to create the U.S. Chess Center.
Founded in 1991, the nonprofit center has a budget of $250,000. It offers in-school chess classes, teachers for after-school chess clubs, as well as summer programs and online chess classes. This past school year, the center reached about 1,200 children. In the District, Mehler said he focuses the in-school classes on schools in the eastern part of the city where the need is greatest.
“We prefer the in-school programs that become part of the academic day because kids are required to take part; a chess club is voluntary,” he explained. “Otherwise, the kids most likely to benefit are least likely to sign up. Chess … does such wonderful things for kids. A lot of kids who are troublemakers in school are bored. Nobody is bored by chess. Chess is challenging for every intellectual level. So when kids who have been bored in school learn chess, they find something resonates and they become less disruptive in the classroom.”
And teachers report to him that student behavior, focus and academic success improve.
“When teachers find an hour a week for chess, they find that their need for repetition and discipline is decreased. They have more time in the day to handle academics,” he said.
Mehler is also part of a long tradition of Jews in chess.
“Jews had some level of domination in chess in the previous centuries,” Mehler said. “The first world champion [William Steinitz] was Jewish as was the second world champion. A lot of the really big names of chess have been Jewish. People attribute this Jewish connection to a number of things. One thought is that the study of Torah is in some ways similar to the study of chess. We take any little thing and we analyze it beyond the point where it should be analyzed in both Torah and chess.
“But obviously chess is a little bit better,” he added. “Because if you have two scholars arguing about a point, how’s a layperson going know which side won the argument? But in chess, if two masters argue about some little point, you look to see who won: checkmate.”
Mehler views his life’s work, as a chess teacher reaching under-resourced and underprivileged children, through the Jewish lens of tikkun olam — repairing the world.
“A number of our kids have won national championships, though I’m more proud of the kids who used chess to succeed academically,” he said.
Another Jewish concept Mehler takes to heart at the U.S. Chess Center is welcoming the stranger.
“We welcome the stranger, we welcome everyone. It would be good to have more people join us,” he said. “Chess is a terrific method of making new friends. The hundreds of friends that I’ve made through the game are people I never would’ve met had it not been for chess.” ■
Lisa Traiger is Washington Jewish Week’s arts correspondent.