Friday, April 6, 2012

End of Session Two at Wohl is best ever!

Last night’s Character Chess Session at Wohl was probably the closest we have ever come to a perfect night with kids.  We had eleven engaged adult volunteers and twenty-two energetic students.  We had all the elements of success; a cool room, positive attitudes, and plenty of Snickers.

Tamiko started the evening off with a big challenge in our “ICE Breaker” exercise. All the students were asked to stand and present themselves with confidence and power.  They all delivered.  Rochelle Griffin deserves an award for “leaning” on all her Fellow friends to come out last night.  In addition, she led our reflective reading.  The students were asked to identify their closest friends; predict where they were headed in life; and decide if they wanted to follow them to that place.  An interesting discussion followed.  Ask a volunteer from last night to fill you in.

We have developed official roles for all of our volunteers like; attendance secretary, organizer, lead reader, tournament director, sergeant at arms and instructional coordinator. However, there are other unofficial jobs that are just as critical.  Melvin and Keith have mastered the all-important job of peace keepers.  Over the past few weeks, including last night, they quietly have identified potentially challenging kids and gently reminded them of the need to control their own behaviors.  Most of the time, no one ever notices this is happening.  That kind of respectful guidance has been essential to the success of the program.

Other volunteers like Mark Smith and Vince Fitzpatrick offer a different kind of leadership in our program.  They make a conscious effort to connect with the kids in a personal way.  I love to see Mark probe the minds and hearts of kids.  At one minute they are playing the “Pawn Touch Down Challege” the next they are planning for college.  That’s what you get with Mark.  Vince’s approach is a little different.  He gives everyone a platform for talking about themselves.   Last night was a perfect example.  Vince identified a young man who was a little detached from the group and paired up with him last night to play chess.  The entire time he used the game to create a safe place for dialogue for the two of them.  That’s what mentorship is really about. 

Special thanks to Jackie French, Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge and Tamiko Armstead for coming out to support.  We know everyone has competing interests, but stopping in, even if for only a few moments, makes a world of difference.   On the other hand, somebody needs to get something special for Jamillah Boyd and FeliceSkye Hutchinson.  These two ladies have put in more hours at Wohl on behave of the IFAA than anyone.  Jamillah is everywhere.  She may not want to lead the reading but she will sign in some kids, play some Chess, throw the Energy Ball, act out scenes from “The Smirfs” and guilt folks into coming out to Wohl.  FeliceSkye, who’s not a fellow (yet), has designed and led The ACTive Reading Program, supported nearly all the Character Chess sessions, served as De’anelle’s personal therapist, shot video and cleaned up after every session.  The two of these ladies have made IFAA at Wohl happen this session and they deserve our thanks and appreciation. 

As we close this session, we will keep you posted on future events at Wohl.  Please, stay engaged and involved.  It’s a blessing for us all.  Thanks to all of our volunteers. You guys are making it happen for kids.    
Character Chess needs your support.  We need energetic and spirited volunteers for the upcoming sessions at Wohl.  The kids can’t wait to see you.  We also need your financial support.  I’m asking you to visit and buy 2 books, one for you and one for a child at Wohl Recreation Center.  While you are there check out the pictures, videos and leave a comment.

Friday, October 21, 2011


The First Night of Character Chess At Wohl Recreation Center October 12, 2011 5:30pm-7:30pm I had to call Jamilah and talk about it. After the first session of Character Chess at Wohl, I was blown away by the energy, competition, connections, conversations and excitement about learning. Who would have thought that a program designed to encourage kids to read and be good would attract so many kids, parents and staff members from the Center. The same kids that were fighting to escape last week were complaining about leaving today. Teenagers who have been written off as disinterested in anything shared their thoughts and dreams with us. It was an unbelievable night. You really had to be there. If you were not there, here’s what you missed: • You missed Dominic, Mr. “I gotta use the bathroom” make a complete transformation into Mr. “I can believe it’s 7:00pm already. Time goes so fast when you’re having fun.” • You missed Cleo teach all the kids how to play The Pawn Touch Down Challenge like a Pro. • You missed Rhonda and me have a heart to heart conversation with two teenage sisters about Birds and Feathers. • You missed Mark Smith catch the smack down from Keith, Darion and Dominic. (That’s what it looked like away.) • You missed Jamilah modeling grace under pressure for Tiffany, Lexy, Ericka and Michelle. They were mirroring here patience and tone. • You missed a room full of kids and adults engaged in an intellectual challenge without a television program or radio in site. • You missed Darion ask Jamilah how to spell Jackie’s name so he could write on his evaluation, “I liked playing chess with Jackie.” • You missed 15 kids, parents and staff members reluctant to leave the safety, security and structure of the Renaissance Room causing us to go an hour overtime. Tonight was a dream come true for me. As hundreds of kids and parents were gathered outside the Wohl Center watching and celebrating football games, we balanced the playing field in a sense. We created a place were young people could learn, practice and celebrate their intellectual capacity. Like Martae said, “smart people play chess.” Thanks to all our Volunteers and Charles for making tonight a great honor for me. And a special thanks to Jamilah for coming early and taking my late night celebration call. We did good work for kids and families tonight.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Protecting Home

“There can be no strong economic base without a strong land base.”
How Blacks Lost 9 Million Acres of Land (Ebony, Oct 1974)

Chess players must balance protecting their own land with expanding their boundaries. He must make sure that the King is protected, while simultaneously closing in on the enemy King. While this is a skill to be developed over time, the player should always be aware that once he fails to protect his home, he becomes open for attack and could lose everything. A man without a home is a homeless man.

Upon being emancipated from slavery my great-great grandfather, James Gill, was given 2000 acres of land to farm. It was a beautiful plot of land on the rolling hills of Marvel, Arkansas. At that time in America, all you needed was a piece of land, a few field hands, and some equipment. That combination and some hard work just about guaranteed that you family could thrive and ultimately create a better life for each following generation. That’s what my family and many other American families were driven to do at that time in history.

However, over four generations James Gill’s family expanded beyond the land in Marvel. His sons and grandsons moved off the land. Some joined the military and others moved North and west for better opportunities. They started new families in Chicago and St. Louis. They left the farm life for better lives in the big cities. Eventually, those 2000 acres shrank down to 20 acres. With few family members left to protect or cultivate the land, it was sold or lost to land traders. Like thousands of other black farmers, my family lost most of its inheritance to land speculators and partitioning.

We have managed to hold on to those last 20 acres. Until just a few years ago, there was an old house on the land that was built with some of the wood from the previous home, but that home was burned down in a fire. What remains is a plot of land, with a family cemetery uniquely positioned near the road with a stately sign baring the name “Gill Family Cemetery.” The hilly land is beautifully lined with old maple trees that know my family’s history. In 1994, my family decided to convert the remaining 20 acres of land into a family park. The plans include a pavilion and new house for family reunions and other community gathers.

At the ground breaking ceremony, my great uncle Dessie Gill, who lives in Marvel, welcomed a small crowd of relatives from around the country. I’ll never forget his words. He said, “Our family has moved off of this land to faraway places with big building and lots of people. But there is something I want you to know. When the big city gets you down, and your problems seem like more than you can bear, you got some place to go. You can always come home.”

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Earning My C

While in elementary school, I was a C student. I didn't just make average grades. No, I was only capable of making C's. I was convinced by my big brother that I was dumb and clumsy. School was hard and I could barely read. So, I made C's. It wasn't until middle school that I started making better grades. In middle school, my English and math teachers convinced me that I was smart. My English teacher taught me how to read and my math teacher began calling me "Attorney Hodge." Shortly after that I became an A student.

Ironically, I am just as proud of my C's in elementary school as I am of my A's afterwards. It was the effort behind my grades that I am proud. Regardless of my ability, I have always tried my best to produce my best outcome, rather C's or A's.

As an adult, I continue to give my best effort in my chosen work. I am a Character Coach. This past month has been one of the most inspiring times of my life. I have been blessed to work with the most intelligent students I have ever encountered. They have been very receptive to all of my teachings. They have quickly absorbed my every word and repeated them back with accuracy and their own reflection. As a result, I have been forced to acquire more material and insights to share.

Because of smart people, my mind has been in overdrive. I have risen to the occasion at every chance to deliver the goods. I have been inspiring, insightful, intelligent, encouraging and informative. Smart kids have forced me to be better.

I have definitely earned the right to be called a Coach. I have earned my "C."

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Be A Loser!

Mark Grimes was a kid who only played Chess with people he knew he could beat. Mark was a tall, skinny, pole of a 7th grader with glasses. He was what we called in the 80’s “lanky.” His dry lips would make you think he was always thirty. And it a way he was. He was starving to beat someone in Chess.

Mark was a good player. He was on our middle school chess team and in a tournament, we could count on him to when a game or two. His strength was on setting traps. Traps in chess are designed to lure inexperienced players into unfamiliar situations and surprise them with a devastating move. Not long after the first move was made, Mark would stand up from the table, slam down his opponents King and declare, “MATE in Seven moves.” This would crush his opponents’ spirit. Usually, a player only falls into a trap once or twice before finding a way to avoid it. More experienced players can see it coming and counter a trap with a more solid defense. For this reason, Mark focused his efforts on playing new players. He could easily get a win out of them.

Unfortunately, because he only played beginners, Mark’s game never really improved. His love for winning was greater than his disdain for losing. As a result he never grew beyond being a mediocre chess player.

Here’s our Character Lesson: “To get better, you must surround yourself with people who are better than you.” Success is often preceded by a series of failures. Success is different from winning. Winning generally happens in a moment. Success happens over time with continued effort. A successful effort is greater than a single win.

I want you to be successful in your life. That means that you must challenge yourself to do those things that are most challenging to you. Struggle through your loses and rise to the top of your class. This effort will build mental muscle and strength of character. And when you find that you are at the top and things are easy, let this be a sign for you to move to the next level. Surround yourself with a more competitive bunch. Make friends people who are smarter, stronger, and more experienced than you. Challenge yourself to a higher level of achievement.

“Always be found losing. It is a sign that you are still growing.”
Coach Hodge

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Racism and The Danger of Underestimating Your Opponent

One of the most beautiful aspects of Chess is the game's non-discretionary foundation. The best player usually wins.

I was recently sent an email message depicting a rural Indian man taking tech support calls from a cobbled field on a laptop fabricated with an assortment of contraptions including a 80’s styled cell phone antenna. The laptop was powered by a stationary bike and from it hung a series of Microsoft manuals and books. Above the picture the caption read, “We have all talked to this guy… at last we have a picture of him.” Below the picture there was another caption that read “Global Support Center. Employee of the Year.”
In the body of the email there was the following joke:

Mujibar was trying to get a job in India. The Personnel Manager said, 'Mujibar, 
you have passed all the tests, except one. Unless you pass it, you cannot qualify for this job.' Mujibar said, 'I am ready.' The manager said, 
'Make a sentence using the words 
Yellow, Pink, and Green..' Mujibar thought for a few minutes and said, 'Mister manager, I am ready.' The manager said, 'Go ahead.' Mujibar said, 'The telephone goes green, green, 
and I pink it up, and say, 
Yellow, this is Mujibar.' Mujibar now works at a call center. 
No doubt you have spoken to him. 
I know I have.

Upon first glance, I saw the attempt at humor and related to the cartoonist frustration with the re-routing of calls to India. However, upon a moment’s reflection I felt a strong discomfort with this message. My mind went back over all the images depicting blacks as mindless “coons” that gave way to black face performances as comedy in this country. I thought about the cartoons used to alienate Jews in Germany in the 1930’s, which eventually led to one of the world’s most horrific Holocaust ever witnessed. And I was reminded of the fact that most injustices aimed at a particular group begins as a simple joke.

I immediately responded to the sender with the following request:

Thank you for this attempt at humor. However, I find it somewhat offensive. I know that we are sometime unaware of the subtle ways that racism can creep into our humor. I believe that when we become aware of these subtleties, we need to speak up. This is one of those occasions. As your friend, I feel responsible for bringing this to your attention. I’m sure that others on the list of people you forwarded this to may also feel the insensitivity of this message.

I encourage you to send an apology to your list of recipients and retract this email message. Please know that my intentions are only to sharpen our relationship. I understand you to be one of the most worldly and genuine people I know. That is why I feel comfortable bringing this to your attention.

With the best of intention.

It was my hope to preserve a friendship, increase cultural sensitivity and save a friend from embarrassment. Here’s his response:

I do apologize to you if you are offended, however, I would be surprised if anyone else on my list was. You are certainly entitled to your opinion, however, in my opinion, that is one of the major problems with this world. People need to lighten up.

I have traveled the world and I have been on the receiving end of many prejudices from my color, to being an American (which is quite prevalent) to being over weight and as a kid, for having bright red hair. I would hope that you know me well enough to know that I am more tolerant then most. You are aware that I have done numerous mission trips to Africa, I am on the board for that group and I am currently on my forth hosting of an African in my home.
Apparently you have never had to deal with tech support in India.
Best regards,

After receiving this response I became keenly aware of the need for continuing our national discussions around race and cultural sensitivity. However, the most relevant lesson for our discussion around chess and character centers around this lack of appreciation for our Indian competitor's advantage. Contrary to the image being perpetuated, the person on the other end of our support call is a highly educated, highly motivated, and highly paid young person positioned to dominate the world of information technology.

The Character and Chess Lesson: “Failure to recognize and appreciate your opponents potential is the greatest threat to your success.”

We, the United States of America, are suffering from my generations greatest economic down turn characterized by growing poverty and massive job loss. Our Indian neighbors are predicting a shortage of people to fill 500,000 information technology jobs by 2010. (,8599,1671982,00.html) America has failed to produce a workforce able to meet our own demand for high tech jobs. Therefore, our corporations have outsourced these jobs to India, where the demand has been met so effectively that young people are turning away from these high paying jobs for less “abusive and racist” work. Simply put, we are losing the tech race to India. We will continue to lose until we recognize their strength and advantage.

In Chess, I have always assumed that anyone who sits on the opposite side of the table is a worthy opponent. At the highest levels, neither chess nor life makes accommodations for color, gender, or class. It is the best player who comes out on top. Even when losing, we always seek to understand the mind and motivation of our opponent. Yes, we are in a global economic competition. To remain relevant, we cannot continue to perpetuate ignorance and hide behind stereotypes. We must face our challenges in a mature and responsible manner.

As your coach, I want you to always assume that you are up against your greatest opponent in every round. Assume that you are playing against the greatest player in the world deceptively disguised as a beginner. This will guarantee that you give your best at every turn. There is no time for jokes during the battle of your life. I guarantee you this, your competition wants to win and they will not lighten up.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Stalemate: Connections that don't WORK!

A stalemate is a term used to describe a position in chess where no one can win. It's the opposite of a win-win but it's not a lose-lose. It's worse. It leaves both people in limbo. It's very much like waisted time.

I have a habit of connecting people whom I believe have a need to meet eachother. I think most people do this. However, I recently went overboard with a friend, that everybody needs to meet. He's a consultant who makes a living from giving people powerful information to enhance their lives. He has changed mine. As a favor to me, he always graciously agreed to make a connection. He brought to my attention that none of the people I introduced to him took advantage of the resources he offered through the meeting. As a result, he felt used and under valued. And the people whom he met had no value for the information they recieved because they got it without paying for it. It was a stalemate, no winners.

So here's the lesson. We must understand two things. First, there is a difference between connecting people for mutual benefit and giving away someone else's resources. I am guilty of giving away a friend's time, knowledge and resources. For that I am greatly sorry. Secondly, people don't value what they don't pay for. We must make sure that the person we intend to help realizes their own need before we offer to meet it. It's like giving an answer before the question is asked. So, we must make sure that people appreciate the gifts we give for their own benefit.

Coach Hodge