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Chess program creates state-championship team in rural Mississippi

The game of chess takes root in Franklin County, Mississippi, growing students' horizons and changing a whole community

In rural Franklin County, Mississippi,  just seven of the 93 high school graduates last year went on to a four-year college.  But that number may rise dramatically over the next few years, thanks to a chess program that has broadened the outlooks of hundreds of school children, while lifting the hopes of their parents and community. Sharyn Alfonsi reports from Franklin County on the next edition of 60 Minutes Sunday, March 26 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

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In only a year-and-a-half, the chess program started in Franklin County by Dr. Jeff Bulington has turned out a state-champion chess team. It was a seminal moment when Franklin County dominated the state championships. “That was very sobering for them to suddenly realize ‘Wow, we are good.’” says Mitch Ham, a team member’s parent.  “The realization of their own potential was a beautiful moment.”

Some of the Franklin County grade schoolers out-played high schoolers in that statewide victory. They also overcame a stereotype. “People said country kids couldn’t learn chess,” says one of the players, Parker Wilkinson.

Even some locals were skeptical. They weren’t sure their kids were natural chess players. Says Bulington, “I was asked...’do you think...these kids have it? Could you have a chess program here?’ And I was, ‘yeah, of course. They’re as smart as any other kids I’ve ever met.’” Bulington came from Memphis, Tennessee, where he had built a chess program for city kids. He was recruited by a benefactor who is paying his salary. The benefactor wishes to remain anonymous.

“I feel like chess could take us anywhere. But it’s not about where it takes us, it’s about how far it takes us.” 

Just 7,000 reside in Franklin County in Mississippi’s southwest region. In a rural, poor county with two stoplights, some can’t see far beyond the county line. Chess is changing that, says Ham. “You always want to see your kids go further,” he tells Alfonsi.  He sees the game, the competition, as a vehicle. “This gives them a window at a young age, that [says] ‘Hey, there’s a whole world out there. I don’t need to set my goals at making $8 an hour,’” says Ham. “’I need to set my goals at whatever I want them to be.’”

Many of the students playing chess have gained a new confidence and seen a rise in their grades.  Rebekah Griffin was in the fifth grade last year when she played in the state championships. “I didn’t really think about it until somebody told me, ‘You played a guy with a beard!’” Griffin is excited about her future. “I feel like chess could take us anywhere. But it’s not about where it takes us, it’s about how far it takes us.”

Every chess player who spoke to 60 Minutes plans to attend college.