Russellville Intermediate School social studies teacher Steve Heaton has been teaching people how to play chess for most of his life.
“My mom told me she bought me a chess set when I was small, and I taught myself,” Heaton said. “In high school, when it was the offseason for whatever sport I was playing, I would go to the library and play chess. A friend came with me, and I’d teach them how to play.”
The next thing he knew, a handful of student athletes were in the library learning how to play chess from Heaton.
“There were 10-15 games going on in the library,” he said. “The librarian came in and told me, ‘You know you are the cause of this,’ and when I apologized she said, ‘Don’t say you’re sorry. This is the quietest I’ve ever seen these boys.’”
These days, Heaton is teaching chess to students at Russellville Intermediate School and has been for over two decades. At its peak, he had around 60 students in fifth, sixth and seventh grades staying after school to play and learn chess. Heaton said students from Russellville Junior High School and Russellville High School sometimes came over after school to participate as well.
“It started because I had a parent looking for something for her sons to do after school,” Heaton said. “She said isn’t there a chess club? Someone told her I taught chess in my social studies classroom, so she came to me and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s try it.’”
Soon, he had so many in his classroom they had to expand elsewhere.
Heaton said he loves chess because he believes it teaches you about and prepares you for everyday life. Heaton said checkers is about getting through each day, but chess is about preparing for the future.
“I relate it to life,” he said. “Chess is encountering problems and solving them. The mistakes you make are yours and if you don’t solve them, then you’re stuck with them.”
On top of that, in chess and in life, Heaton explained there are forces that might work against you – just like your opponent on the chessboard. Plus, in both, something you didn’t see coming from left field can derail you. Heaton said it’s not only teaching these things sometimes happen, it’s teaching how we respond makes all the difference.
“It teaches them to prepare for the unexpected,” he said. “Things can come after you that you weren’t paying attention to.”
Heaton’s club runs after school until 5:30 pm He has never been paid for the extra work. Heaton said impacting young lives is payment enough.
“It’s neat to see them grow,” he said. “Neat to see them begin to see a lot of the things you’ve been telling them are right. You are who you hang out with. You have to or they won’t let you hang with them. Hang out with good quality people, your life will be good quality.”
He said he loves hearing about them teaching chess to others, playing and beating their parents and siblings and seeing the excitement on their faces when they begin to understand strategies.
He said he even enjoys when he meets them later in life, they challenge him to a game and beat him.
“It’s like that Star Wars line, ‘When I left you I was but the learner, now I am the master,’ he said.