By Rae Patterson
David Brooks is widely known in the Over the Mountain community as “Coach Brooks,” founder and head of the chess academy called The Knight School.
The Knight School has won more than 20 state championships, and it is all because of Brooks’ revolutionary fun approach to chess. Brooks has parlayed his method of teaching chess using puzzles and other fun techniques in a social atmosphere – in a weekly “chess party” – into a franchise with branches in four states.
Brooks tracks the origins of his success to an embarrassing loss when he was a child.
Brooks started playing chess when he was nine years old and he was, as he described it, “really, really bad.” He tells the story of the day in study hall when he was being beaten by his physics teacher in front of a crowd of students.
“I was just killed by him! And I committed at that point that I would play defense and never get beaten again and then I kinda took it seriously from then on … . It wasn’t a win that made me do it; it was a loss.”
Many years later, at the age of 28, Brooks received his Ph.D. and took a position at John Carroll High School teaching honors freshman English and AP world history. During lunch breaks, he meandered into the chess club, which was being taught by a priest. He played chess with the kids there for a year and then was asked by the school to teach that chess club.
“I told them I would if we could make it into a chess team and be competitive,” said Brooks, “and they said yes. And we just started winning; we never lost.”
The chess team at John Carroll quickly grew into a social sensation with about 40 kids on the team and a group of students who served as supporters, similar to the Diamond Dolls for baseball. Brooks established the chess team squad called the Stale Mates, which was composed of boys and girls, just like the chess team.
“It became this big, fun thing to be on the Stale Mates, so people would make cakes for us and compete to be on the squad,” Brooks said.
The chess club was a success on more than just the social plane. The Knight School website reports that it “stopped counting victories after (it) had won 51 school-vs-school matches and had lost zero.”
Soon younger siblings of the John Carroll chess club were asking Brooks to coach chess at their elementary school. After-school chess classes at four elementary schools were the beginning of what Brooks would call The Knight School.
The Knight School expanded rapidly in the first three years, but there were only five school days each week and only one coach.
“I realized I could make a living in (coaching chess) when I figured out I could film all the different things I did – the opening monologue, the tactics lessons and the puzzles – and hire coaches to go out and show the films, and have them run it exactly how I would run a class,” Brooks said.
In 2012, Brooks retired from Catholic schools after 20 years of teaching in order to devote his full attention to chess.
There are now 400 Knight School students across 75 school chess teams. The school also offers classes called “Little Geniuses” for 207 preschool students in 24 locations. In addition, there are advanced chess classes, classes for students with special needs and chess camps offered over the summer.
The Knight School has even become a franchise and spread to Auburn, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa, as well as Dallas and Austin, Texas, Portland and Washington.
Brooks said that the Knight School is focused on fun, which is “how all education should operate.”
“My competitors just can’t believe that I have more students than they have,” Brooks said. “I don’t really play chess like they do. I’m not a chess guy; I’m an educator. The whole Knight School is built on the idea that you need to know the kid, not the chess board.”
The Knight School tagline is “Completing the Perfect Childhood.” Brooks said many parents ask why their children should play chess. “Critical thinking and being academically confident in the classroom is what we’re all about,” Brooks said.
On the Knight School website, he explains that chess students grow in their integrity through sportsmanship and learn to think of themselves as a “smart person.” Brooks said most kids experience academics only in the classroom and not as a fun social outlet.
“It makes you well-rounded, I think, to be a chess-player and a baseball player and a debater,” he said.
To learn more about The Knight School, visit theknightschool.com.