The following is a script from “Chess Country,” which aired on March 26, 2017. Sharyn Alfonsi is the correspondent. Draggan Mihailovich and Laura Dodd, producers.
Chess has been around for 1,500 years but until a couple of summers ago the ancient game was still mostly a mystery to the folks of rural Franklin County, Mississippi. Few had ever played chess before, many confused it with checkers. A chess board was as out of place in the county as a skyscraper, but that all changed when a tall stranger arrived from Memphis to bring chess to the country with a belief that the game could transform a community. He was initially met with bewilderment. Who was this six-foot-six outsider and why would anyone come to Franklin County to teach chess? Less than two years later, a chess boom is underway in the unlikeliest of places.
Tucked deep in the southwest corner of Mississippi lies remote Franklin County, where the trains don’t stop any more. Half the county is covered by a national forest, the other half it seems by churches.
This is the buckle of the Bible belt. Seven thousand people live here and no one’s in a hurry. There are only two stop lights in the entire county and one elementary school.
“All the statistics, everything you look at, Mississippi is the poorest. It’s the dumbest. It’s the fattest. We know that the rest of the nation has that conception of us.”
So imagine everyone’s surprise when Dr. Jeff Bulington showed up at school to teach the kids of Franklin County a new subject: chess.
Jeff Bulington: So everybody say, “Checkmate.”
Sharyn Alfonsi: Before Dr. B came to town, had you played chess before?
Braden Ferrell: I didn’t have a clue how to move the pieces or nothing.
Donovan Moore: Only time I saw it was on TV…
Donovan Moore, Braden Ferrell, Parker Wilkinson, and Benson Schexnaydre didn’t know what to make of Dr. B, as he is known, when he first appeared in 2015.
“If there are people there, it’s not “nowhere.” This is somewhere. It’s just a somewhere that doesn’t get a lot of attention.”
Sharyn Alfonsi: What did you think of Dr. B when you first met him?
Benson Schexnaydre: This 12-foot man.
Sharyn Alfonsi: The 12-foot man.
Parker Wilkinson: Whenever he came into the room saying he was planning on teaching us chess, I was like, “What? Why would somebody come down here?’
Sharyn Alfonsi: In the middle of nowhere. You’re a logical guy, and it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
Jeff Bulington: If there are people there, it’s not “nowhere.” This is somewhere. It’s just a somewhere that doesn’t get a lot of attention.
Jeff Bulington was lured to Franklin County by a wealthy benefactor, who wishes to remain anonymous. The benefactor had seen how Bulington had molded chess champions in Memphis, in one of the most distressed zip codes in America, and wondered if chess could take hold in the country.
Jeff Bulington: Where can you put the king?
He convinced Bulington to give a few demonstration lessons in Franklin County…
Bulington, demonstration: Does that stop him from coming here?
Jeff Bulington: Afterwards I was asked, so hey, what do you think? Do you think this, 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.
Motivated by the challenge, Bulington signed a 10-year contract with the benefactor and left the city for the country.
Jeff Bulington: What is he doing? He’s X-raying the king.
Bulington has taught chess for the better part of 25 years.
Jeff Bulington: What’s so wonderful about the bishop and why might we think of it as an archer?
He may not be a grand master, but he’s a master of using chess to tell a narrative, especially with beginners.
Jeff Bulington: This is a story about a little girl, and the stranger and the little girl’s daddy.
Jeff Bulington: Elizabeth and the stranger is just my adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood to the chess board.
Jeff Bulington: Elizabeth needs to get down here to E1 where school is where she can be safe.
Jeff Bulington: It involves just simply teaching how a pawn moves and a king moves.
Jeff Bulington: Oh no! Is she going to make it?
Ricky: I told you this was a bad idea!
Jeff Bulington: I remember my partner in this project saying to me, we’d have maybe 12 kids playing chess. He didn’t know what to expect.
Sharyn Alfonsi: And how many kids do you have playing chess right now?
Jeff Bulington: Well, a couple hundred.
Students flock to Bulington in part because at heart he’s one of them. He grew up in rural Indiana and identifies with kids who have to feed the chickens, count tarantulas as pets and have different tastes in food.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What do you like to eat?
Parker Wilkinson: Fried rattlesnake…
Sharyn Alfonsi: Fried rattlesnake…
Parker Wilkinson: If you got to my house, if we ever find a rattlesnake in a course of like a week or so, you’re getting some fried rattlesnake…
“People said that country kids couldn’t learn chess. We showed ‘em different.”
Bulington’s opened up a new world to his kids…
Benson Schexnaydre: Check.
Jeff Bulington: This is a famous game by Morphy against Count Isowarde and Duke of Brunswick. It’s played in Paris. This is Paris…
Bobby Poole: We teach history. We teach geography. We teach science. We teach math. We teach it all using the chess board…
Bobby Poole is a part-time preacher and a full-time assistant chess coach for Bulington. Poole says there were doubts that Bulington could succeed in Mississippi.
Bobby Poole: All the statistics, everything you look at, Mississippi is the poorest. It’s the dumbest. It’s the fattest. We know that the rest of the nation has that conception of us.
Parker Wilkinson: People said that country kids couldn’t learn chess.
Sharyn Alfonsi: And?
Parker Wilkinson: We showed ‘em different…
Benson Schexnaydre: We proved them wrong. We proved ‘em wrong.
Proof came last spring in Starkville, where Bulington’s team of mostly elementary school kids from Franklin County faced off against much older high school players at the Mississippi state championships. Rebekah Griffin was in the fifth grade.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What was their reaction when they saw you, a little fifth grader sitting across the table from them?
Rebekah Griffin: One of them started bragging to their friends about how he got easy pickins’…
Sharyn Alfonsi: Is that a little scary, playing somebody who looked that much older than you?
Rebekah Griffin: I didn’t really think about it until somebody told me, ‘You played a guy with a beard?!’
Sharyn Alfonsi: You guys roll in, and they say, ‘Who are these kids,’ right?
Braden Ferrell: They were basically, like, trying to say we were a joke cause we were kids. But after the game, we usually beat ‘em and they were like very shocked.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Don’t you guys feel bad you beat all those older kids?
Braden Ferrell: Never…
Parker Wilkinson: No. I don’t want that to make me seem like a cruel person, but I’m, I really am just OK with crushing people’s spirits.
In the end, Franklin County dominated the state championships.
Mitch Ham: What happened is a bunch of hillbillies beat the snot out of a bunch of really highly educated, sophisticated people. So that’s what happened…
Mitch Ham was among the many parents in Starkville…he thinks the victories served as a milestone for Franklin County’s kids.
Mitch Ham: That was very sobering for them, to suddenly realize, ‘Wow, we are good.’ So them having the realization of their own potential was a beautiful moment.
Sharyn Alfonsi: How did the teachers, the other teachers, react?
Jeff Bulington: Over the course of my career in teaching chess people say things like, “I did not know that he could do something like that, or even something as simple and as crass as I did not know he was smart or she was smart,” or something like that.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What does that tell you?
Jeff Bulington: It tells me some people got it wrong, that some kids have been underestimated or written off for reasons that are false.
“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.”
Chess has helped Bulington’s players see there’s more to themselves than they’ve seen before.
Parker Wilkinson: Chess is, like, something that like I’m like really good at for once.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Has it changed you at all?
Donovan Moore: It has. My grades have gone up.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Your grades have gone up?
Donovan Moore: All my grades used to be like low, medium low Bs. Now, they’re A’s and high B’s.
Rebekah Griffin: 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.
Last year, only seven of the 93 graduates from Franklin County High School went on to a four-year college, but every chess player we spoke to plans to attend college some day.
Jennifer Rutland: It’s really shocked me how far he’s came…
Jennifer Rutland is Braden’s mom. She runs the First and Main Café, one of the few places in the county that serves a hot meal. She believes her son won’t be flipping burgers for a living.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Is it fun to see your kids dream a little bigger than the county line?
Jennifer Rutland: Yes. Yes. So big that it’s almost like, “Braden, come on, get real.” You know, it just gets so big….
Mitch Ham: You always want to see your kids go further. And I think chess can be a vehicle to take ‘em there, you know? This gives them a window at a young age, that, ‘Hey, there’s a whole world out there. I don’t need to set my goals at making $8 an hour, I need to set my goals at whatever I want ‘em to be.”
Chess has filled a social void and given Main Street a pulse.
In October, a new chess center opened in the middle of Meadville, the county seat.
Sharyn Alfonsi: Do you feel like chess has made the community more hopeful?
Jeff Bulington: Certainly parts of it, yeah, right. I mean, this flower hasn’t bloomed yet. It’s just starting to, right? There’s a lot yet to come.
The chess center has become like a beacon in the county. Each day after school, kids who have the desire and aptitude receive more instruction from Bulington.
Jeff Bulington: So, what does black do?
They’ve become so immersed in the game, with its infinite number of possible moves, that when these students finish playing chess, they go home -- and play more chess….
Sharyn Alfonsi: Can the best chess player in the world come from Franklin County?
Benson Schexnaydre: Maybe…
Braden Ferrell: Absolutely.
Parker Wilkinson: Absolutely.
Benson Schexnaydre: It’s super possible.
Before they could take on the world, they would have to face the nation.
The week before Christmas, 33 of Franklin County’s chess wonders and their parents gathered in the school parking lot to begin a 10-hour journey to Nashville, for their biggest test yet: the national championships.
As day turned into night, Bulington and his students were lost in what they call the chess dimension…
Austen Johnson: Where are we?
Jeff Bulington: Well, I don’t know where we are. We’re in the middle of problem nine. That’s all I know.
Preparing in their own language…
Jeff Bulington: Knight D4 attacking the queen and threatening the queen takes H3 check.
For what lay ahead: a weekend of intense chess, more than 1,500 players from 644 schools gathered in a giant ballroom at Opryland for seven rounds of chess over three days. Every grade, K through 12, was vying for a national title. The best teams come from the best schools in new york city. And two hours into the tournament, it appeared as if little franklin county was overmatched. After round one, the kids from mississippi had lost 30 of their first 32 games…
Jeff Bulington: You know, it’s a real struggle and they’re gonna learn to struggle at this level. And they’re learning that they have to struggle at a different level than they ever have before.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What’s the feeling when you walk in here as a player, as a coach, as a parent?
Jeff Bulington: It’s a deep agonistic experience, right?
Sharyn Alfonsi: Deep agonistic experience?
Jeff Bulington: Yeah, it’s real true competition based on skill alone, right? And you look around and you can see it in the parents’ faces as much as the kids that there’s something significant at stake here.
Nervous parents from other programs tried to sneak a closer peek into the ball room, desperate for any news. After their shaky start, Franklin County’s players bore down taking more time, probing for openings, watching for threats. A Bulington mantra played in their heads: Let your opponent show you how they’d like to lose.
Jeff Bulington: Today is the last day, it’s the hardest day…
By Sunday, with the final two rounds looming, Franklin County’s fifth and sixth graders were hovering near the top 10.
Jeff Bulington: Everybody needs to fight for those points today, we need them very much.
Parker Wilkinson, Braden Ferrell and Benson Schexnaydre all delivered for Franklin County that left Donovan Moore, who was mired in a two-and-a-half hour struggle against a higher-rated opponent from Kentucky on the verge of victory, Donovan was asked for a draw. He said no. His opponent snapped…the tension of the event bursting to the surface. Donovan Moore eventually won, boosting Franklin County’s fifth graders to number eight in the country.
Announcer: Making their debut to the stage, Franklin County Upper Elementary …
The sixth graders placed tenth. Two grades in the nation’s top 10, only a year-and-a-half after Jeff Bulington first showed up to introduce chess to a small county in Mississippi.
Parker Wilkinson: One thing that I don’t think I say enough is thank you.
Benson Schexnaydre: I was thinking the same thing.
Parker Wilkinson: For teaching us all this.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What are they capable of?
Jeff Bulington: Somewhere in the top three at least.
Sharyn Alfonsi: You think you can stick it out for eight more years in Franklin County?
Jeff Bulington: I won’t even think of it as sticking it out.
Sharyn Alfonsi: What do you think of it as?
Jeff Bulington: I think of it as doing what I want to do, being in a place I like to be.