Former ABS East student transforms his life through the game of chess

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July 20, 2021 by HCDE-Texas

Many are familiar with the game of black and white squares, pawns, knights, kings, and queens, but only those who know it well understand its many benefits. Chess is played around the world and celebrated on July 20, International Chess Day.

When it comes to this renowned sport’s advantages and integral life lessons—patience, fairness, and discipline—few can exemplify them more perfectly than 16-year-old amateur player and coach Michael Carley.

Michael, a former HCDE Academic and Behavioral School East student and incoming eleventh-grader at Huffman ISD’s Hargraves High School, struggles with behavioral challenges that stem from a mild form of autism spectrum disorder. Through his introduction to chess at ABS East, Michael has developed the tools and discipline which aid him in processing emotions and external variables.

Michael has come a long way from a difficult transition to the classroom. His mother, Brandy Pinson, recalls an emotional time when he was “hardly able to make it through a day” due to what she describes as severe emotional disruptions and combative outbursts. During first grade, his struggle to adjust to a classroom setting led to his enrollment at ABS East. After five years, Michael was re-introduced to his home school, but the change of environment still proved to be too difficult.

“He was only there for a couple of weeks before I started getting the calls [from the school] again,” said Pinson.

Michael soon returned to ABS East, where he spent another three years. It was during this time when he developed a love and talent for chess. It was not long before Michael’s teachers and family recognized a change in him.

“Once he started playing chess, we noticed a significant improvement in his ability to deal with stressful situations,” said Pinson. “He developed patience and redirection. It was a complete 180. That’s when I thought, ‘Okay, he’s ready.’ He had learned all of those skills and problem-solving strategies from chess, and that’s when I realized that [chess] basically saved his life.”

Today, Michael is as devoted to the game as ever. He now beats his coach, who taught him how to play, regularly competes at the state and national levels, and enjoys teaching younger students as a United States Chess Federation (USCF) Level I Certified Chess Coach.

The skills and strategies Michael learns from the game make him more successful on the chess board and in the classroom. Ultimately, chess is what helped Michael transition back to his home school in Huffman ISD.

Though Michael is a member of his school’s chess club, it does not currently host competitions or events, so his family makes a roughly 60-mile round trip to a community center across town nearly every Saturday to take him to chess practices.

Pinson shares that she and Michael feel strongly about bringing more opportunities to learn and compete in chess to their school district and the northest Houston area. While Michael currently coaches other students at the community center where he practices, he hopes to eventually coach one-on-one.

“I thought, ‘How cool would that be.’ He could start working with the kids over here and helping them [develop their skills].” she said. “I saw what it did for my son, and he might save another kid. This is something that anybody can do, and it teaches them the life skills that they use to grow and develop into problem-solving adults.”

Michael has his eyes set on his future, and chess is a big part of it. He plans to continue competing and teaching but also hopes to use his love of the game to earn college scholarships. Though Michael is still undecided about his area of study, he is considering architecture and medicine. Pinson believes whatever he chooses, he will succeed because of what he’s learned from the game.

This weekend, Michael will compete in the USCF 2021 U.S. Class Chess Championships in Houston. When asked how Michael would celebrate International Chess Day, Pinson says he will likely spend it how he spends most summer days—playing chess and honing his strategy.

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