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How Coach Jeff Byrd Transforms Birmingham Students Through Chess

Ethan Bishop, a fourth-grader at Birmingham's Carrie A. Tuggle Elementary School, makes a move under the watchful eye of Chess Coach Jeff Byrd. (Marika N. Johnson, The Birmingham Times)
By Sym Posey
The Birmingham Times

Jeff Byrd knew early that chess could have an impact on his life, and now he’s sharing that passion with students across Birmingham.

“I always played board games and stuff like that,” he said. “I always had a good relationship with reading and knowledge, so chess was just natural for me.”

He continued, “This game really transforms and changes lives. The sky is the limit when you play chess, especially if you are practicing on a regular basis. It has been shown to reverse the effects of mental aging. Chess teaches you to find a solution. You have to be creative, you have to plan, and you have to use the wisdom that you learned over time. The board represents your life’s environment.”

Byrd, who is an application integrations systems analyst at Cadence Bank, is also the founder and CEO of Byrd Brothers Chess Center LLC, which partners with the James Lewis Education and Tennis Foundation Inc. (JLETFI) to bring chess to after-school programs at Booker T. Washington K-8 School, John Herbert Phillips Academy, and Carrie A. Tuggle Elementary School.

The partnership has assembled more than 60 players, earned various awards, and instilled a passion for the next generation of chess players by exposing them to the game and its benefits.

On December 9, Caesar Chess Service Provider will host the Pushing Pawns Scholastic Tournament at Tuggle beginning at 9:30 a.m. for K-12 students in public, private, charter schools and families of military and home schools.

“I have seen chess make these students … find confidence, find purpose, and find a solution. Our goal is to make chess more accessible,” said Byrd, a Birmingham City School (BCS) alum who knows the importance of learning chess at an early age.

“Playing chess can improve cognitive skills, like memory, planning, and problem solving,” according to “The 9 Best Benefits of Playing Chess,” an article published at Healthline.com. Because of these and numerous other benefits, the game can have a positive impact on the development of young African Americans, as detailed in a 2009 study in the International Journal of Multicultural Education, which found that “students … [expressed] how learning chess helped in learning other subjects [and that the game improved] … attitudes toward schooling.”

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“Well-Dressed Loser”

Influenced by his mother, the late Rosalind M. Byrd, the chess coach started playing at age 6.

“My mom was trying to find stuff for [my younger brother and me] to do because she would read the newspaper. She noticed stuff about chess in the paper and was like, ‘OK, that sounds like something my sons would be interested in,’” Byrd recalled.

Byrd, now 30, said, “I started off at Glen Iris [Elementary School]. There was this guy named Wallace Fard Muhammad, [who] was my original chess mentor and coach. He saw that I had a natural affinity for the game, so I began playing very quickly from there on out.”

The young Byrd would go on to win the state second-grade championship and compete in multiple tournaments throughout the state.

When he first started playing chess, Byrd recalled, he was not the best player. In fact, he remembers being a “well-dressed loser.”

“Funny story: The first time my parents dressed me up for my first time playing, I remember that outfit. I wore a black blazer, bow tie, some matching dress shoes, a white dress shirt, and my brown oval glasses. I lost every single one of my games during my first tournament.”

And it was the best thing that happened to him.

“It motivated me to apply myself and put forth the effort to really win. I took my lessons seriously,” Byrd said. “At that point, I started winning.”

Byrd didn’t play chess as much in middle school, but he decided to pick up the game again in high school. After losing his during freshman year, he would go on to compete in the Alabama Scholastic Chess Championship Open Division three more times, winning consecutively from his sophomore year until he graduated from Ramsay High School in 2011.

While studying at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), the Titusville, Alabama, native said he didn’t play chess as much when he got to college, but that did not stop him from finding other ways to succeed.

While in his first year at UAB, Byrd was awarded the African American Faculty Association Endowment Scholarship, an award given to students who demonstrate academic excellence, leadership, and community engagement. In 2015, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Management Information Systems, General.

Byrd credits his mother with helping him found the Byrd Brothers Chess Center.

“She said she always imagined it. She saw the beauty of how chess connected through me. She had been telling me this since I was [younger]. … She would always call it Byrd Brothers Chess. My mom passed away in the Spring of 2022, so after that I was like, ‘I need to go ahead and really get this going,’” he said.

The Byrd Brothers Chess Center’s goal “is to provide our students, by using the vehicle of chess, to increase their Faith, develop discipline and character, become aware and strengthen their critical thinking skills, and understand the consequences of decisions and their impact on their own life (chessboard),” according to its website.

And the program has had a number of successes. This summer, during a tournament sponsored by the JLETFI, more than 20 students, most from BCS, participated, with first place prizes going to Tuggle Elementary, where Byrd coaches.

Prized Pupil

One of Byrd’s top students at Tuggle is fourth grader Ethan Bishop. Being part of the after-school program was “a dream come true,” said the 9-year-old, who hopes to one day earn a chess scholarship and aims to achieve one of the highest titles a chess player can attain, that of grandmaster.

“I started playing chess [nearly four] months ago… it was my first tournament,” said Bishop. Asked what he liked most about chess he said,” It’s a challenge… that I practice at home. Besides chess Bishop enjoys, “basketball, baseball, and football.” Asked how he manages all of them, he said “one season at a time.”

The student has attended Tuggle Elementary since prekindergarten. His mother, Shahanica Gales, said her son has grown up in the school. “I try to teach him to be humble,” she said. “Don’t taunt but be confident.”

“Whatever he says he wants to do, mommy is going to make sure [it happens]. You want to play chess? Let’s figure it out. You want to play sports? Let’s figure it out. He’s my only son, so I am going to pour everything I have into him.”

Byrd saw early on that Bishop was gifted.

“We have a free summer camp with the JLETFI that [Bishop] participates in. He started playing at the end of June, and we only had three teaching sessions. He holds his own when he’s playing against some of these guys who have been playing for a while. As his coach, I try to stay on him because he has so much potential,” said Byrd.

As for the future, the coach said, “My goal is to turn this into a nonprofit. Our vision is to have a chess team at every elementary, middle, and high school in the BCS system, as well as a center for inner city kids, somewhere they can come play chess after school,” he said.

“The thing is chess is kind of like golf or tennis, [which] have always been seen as [activities] that you have to be affluent to have access to. Our goal is to break that barrier,” Byrd said.

To learn more about Jeff Byrd and the Byrd Brothers Chess Center, send an email to fly@byrdbrotherschess.com or visit byrdbrotherschess.com. You also can follow them on Facebook and Instagram @byrdbrotherschesscenter.