Chess serves as support for the vulnerable, detained children in Argentina

Agustín Teglia, a sociologist by profession, learned to play chess as a child, encouraged by his mother. He remembers there was a board in the living room where he played with his brother and cousin. Years later, when he began working in literacy programs, he began organizing workshops in vulnerable neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and in juvenile detention centers and psychiatric centers for teens and adults.

A chessboard with black and white squares and a series of pieces that place a dispute are the tools Teglia discovered to confront violence and marginality. With this method he also integrated children and teenagers from vulnerable areas and others into juvenile delinquent institutions.

Growing up, Teglia heard the prejudice that chess was a game for the smartest and, in many cases, the wealthy. However, he discovered that, with practice, the activity could become a pedagogical tool that can promote group dynamics and integration. He also discovered that, with some simplifications, anyone could start playing on day one at any age.

“We start by telling the story of the game and its pieces, suspending some more abstract rules, such as checking for direct battles that involve capturing pieces. Then we gradually incorporate more rules to make the game more complex and strategic,” he says.

“When I started working in Villa 21 (a low-income neighborhood in Buenos Aires), I had to put aside my prejudices. Five-year-old children got excited when I told them the history of chess and immersed them in the cultural world of the game,” he recalls.

Teglia emphasizes the benefits of chess as “a playful activity that develops active attention.” He mentions working with children who have been diagnosed with an attention deficit, emphasizing that sometimes it is not a mistake, but a strategy for navigating the world.

Although he doesn’t keep track of the number of participants in his workshops, Teglia estimates that in the thirteen years he has been working, there have been hundreds of people in groups of twenty to forty. He currently schedules classes simultaneously at a psychiatric facility and at the juvenile justice admission and referral center, where he divides the children into levels based on their age.

To socialize and concentrate

“In 2010, I started organizing workshops in children’s homes and integrated chess into literacy workshops in Villa 21 as another proposal for artistic expression and play,” he recalls. “This game influences how children interact with knowledge and problem solving, thus aiding the learning process.”

One of his students puts it in his own words: “I like it, and I get addicted to it because it helps me think.”

During the gaming sessions, we do not lose sight of the clock: “It is essential because it allows you to work on time management. Each participant must manage it for movements and, in a broader sense, for organizing the activity,” says Teglia.

ONLINE gaming to learn the rules and remember the pieces. Image courtesy of Agustín Teglia

The expert also points out the “socializing” potential of the activity: “It is a good way to generate a mediator, a common code to form a group. There may be children of different ages and levels, and each has a role in receiving and integrating classmates or learning rules.”

Teglia says emotions come out during board games and gives examples: A boy was hesitant to sacrifice the queen to save the king because he wanted to protect his bonds. “They identify pawns with children like them, and the king and queen with their father and mother.”

He adds that in addition to socializing and resolving conflicts, the game encourages participants to learn to follow rules.

In addition to taking his proposal to vulnerable neighborhoods, Teglia added workshops at the Club Racing de Avellaneda primary school and in psychiatric institutions for children, teenagers and adults. “Exercise facilitates better organization of thought for people with mental disorders and allows their subjectivity to emerge,” he says.

SOME workshops also involve teenagers and adults. They serve them to socialize and express conflicts. Image courtesy of Agustín Teglia

Another implementation of the game is in the juvenile justice system of the Council for the Rights of Children and Adolescents, where he organizes workshops in closed and semi-closed educational centers. In these spaces, where a certain degree of confinement exists, the black and white pieces allow children and young people to play out unknown or hidden internal forces and release tensions and conflicts, Teglia explains, drawing on concepts from the Argentine writer and thinker Ezequiel Martínez Estrada paraphrases. He gives an example: a boy who was held captive with his mother during a supermarket robbery refused to lose the queen and preferred to lose the king, thus losing sight of the main goal of the game.

Recycling and construction parts

Workshops do not require significant infrastructure in public or private settings. “Materiality is secondary; first I teach them to experience the rules of the game,” says Teglia.

Sometimes working with very limited resources, he finds alternatives using cardboard and bottle caps to create games that can even be taken home or given as gifts. “You add art and the perspective of recycling, and the game is created from scratch.”

CHESSBOARDS made from tiles and soda bottle pieces. Image courtesy of Agustín Teglia

So at gatherings in homes and emergency neighborhoods, the game starts with creating the board with bottle caps, plastic containers, and pieces of stone or wood that turn into kings, queens, knights, pawns, bishops, and rooks.

“But it’s curious because both children and adults worry about materiality. Large and beautiful pieces arouse enthusiasm or curiosity in the youngest or people with depression,” he says.

The dream of multiplying workshops

Teglia is convinced that workshops can be multiplied in different institutions and in all provinces of the country: “The possibility of replicating them and generating a cross-cutting proposal at national level always depends on public policy. There are some established programs such as Ajedrecear that promote chess practice and organize tournaments, but these are no longer funded. The same goes for public education. However, it would be desirable to integrate the activity in all possible contexts. I promote it, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to coordinate with institutions that have their problems.”

Alternatively, Teglia gathered his experience and step-by-step guide to setting up and maintaining a workshop over time Caballito de Troya, a book by Editorial Marat. The text is not a collection of anecdotes or the story of the experience of introducing chess in these environments, but a teaching manual for the game.

“I’m trying to add tools for teachers, for their toolbox, so they have more options to intervene,” says the author.

THE presentation of the book aims to multiply the experience. Teglia (with the microphone) explained how the workshops worked. Image: Courtesy of Agustín Teglia

The comments from workshop participants (children and young people) and their parents in the lessons support this.

“The most fun part is making the board and taking it home to play with it,” says one of the children. “Since he started playing chess, it not only helped him concentrate but also helped him perform better at school. I can’t explain why, but it’s true,” says the father of one participant, while the teacher listens with more than satisfaction. –

This story was originally published in RED/ACCIÓN (Argentina) and has been republished within the Human Journalism Network program, supported by the International Center for Journalists.