Meet Henry: An Inspiring New Chess Instructor at Vivalon
Henry is a junior at Branson High School who is using his love of chess to encourage folks of all ages to learn something new. He is the founder of ChessPals, a nonprofit that shares the fun of chess with low-income elementary students to foster academic growth and lifelong skills. Now he’s bringing the game to Vivalon with a new spin.
At 17 years old, Henry is a Strawberry resident who loves tennis, skiing, finance, marketing, and chess and has been playing the game since he was 5 years old.
“The chess scene in Marin was pioneered by Jeff and Lanette Gordon” says Henry. “I learned from them. They lived in Corte Madera and had programs at many schools in the area and also had classes at their house on Friday. It was a great opportunity to learn and hone my skills.”
Jeff and Lanette ran the Marin Scholastic Chess Tournament for 16 years and worked with Henry to establish his own teaching program.
For Henry, the road to sharing chess with others began when he was 12 years old as he worked on his bar mitzvah project, a coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish boys. “Each kid usually has a project,” Henry explains. “Most of the time, they volunteer, but I thought it would be interesting to create something. I always had a passion for chess and thought education was important but that it isn’t always taught in the most efficient way, so I decided to challenge myself to my own beliefs and teach other kids about something I’m also passionate about.”
For his project, Henry worked with kids at the Venetia Valley K-8 school, and by 2018 he began recruiting more coaches to actively grow ChessPals, which now operates in schools in three states: California, Texas, and Georgia. “It started with just me,” explains Henry, “but it’s grown to be a relatively big organization with 5 chapters across the nation. We have 5 schools in Marin, the program at Vivalon, and we’re rapidly expanding with new offerings.”
According to its website, ChessPals focuses on teaching kids, “lifelong skills, such as goals setting, consistent practice, good sportsmanship and a growth mindset,” using a customized curriculum based on Chess.com. Each kid who participates has the opportunity to join local tournaments and gets an account with Chesskid.com so they can continue practicing their skills.
“The main thing that makes ChessPals different is all of the classes are taught by high school-age kids, me included,” says Henry. “All of our teachers are either high schoolers or eighth graders who are incoming freshmen. That youthfulness puts a new spin on the game. Chess is usually represented as stingy, uptight, or never-changing, so we’re trying to rejuvenate the image of chess to show it’s a really fun and beneficial game that is for all ages with a lot of lessons we can take away from it. It’s also a great way to connect with others.”
On January 26, Henry hosted his first class at Vivalon to a class of 13 people. “It went great!” says Henry. “Everyone was really excited for it, and they were getting it really fast.”
Henry had been wanting to find an older adult audience to introduce to chess and found that Vivalon was a natural fit for expanding his program. “Vivalon and ChessPals had kind of been overlapping. I wanted to get into senior centers or assisted living because I thought that was a great avenue for teaching,” explains Henry. “I thought it would be a great connection to have older adults playing with some of our younger kids, maybe facilitating an exchange program where they can play games together. I was looking around for centers, and I realized that Vivalon was close by and very community oriented with lots of opportunities that we could partner on and leverage for the students that we already teach and to teach more students. I reached out and I had a great talk with Michele Levine. We had the same ideas, and it took off from there.”
Michele is Vivalon’s Healthy Aging Programs Manager who has helped Henry start his class at Vivalon. “Henry is such a bright kid. His students at Vivalon are captivated by him. They’re so engaged. It’s exciting to see this intergenerational class and the interaction between the instructor and students. I’m so grateful to him and all that he’s doing.”
We know healthy aging is more than just exercise. Staying active is important, but we also need to exercise our brains. Studies continue to show that learning new skills are an important part of brain health, especially as we age, and playing games like chess provide avenues to connect with peers who share your interests.
“To me, pushing yourself to learn new things is really important,” says Henry. “It doesn’t have to be through the medium of chess. Learning something new or teaching something new is really impactful on your perspective on life and how you see others around you and also how you see yourself and your own aptitude. I really encourage people to learn something new, or if they’re already well-versed in something to teach it to others.”
Chess with Henry is offered at Vivalon’s Healthy Aging Center in San Rafael on Thursdays, 3:30-4:30 pm. Registration is required. You can learn more and view upcoming classes at Vivalon here.