Charles Jones rested his chin against his left hand, stared down at the chessboard in front of him and patiently plotted his next move in silence.
His opponent, gnawing on a Goldfish cracker, wasn’t so patient.
“Your hair looks nice today,” sixth-grader Ramesh Chhetri told his principal — who is bald — in an attempt to throw him off his game.
It was a valiant effort, but a fruitless one. Jones cracked a smile, but the 12-year-old eventually lost to his school’s leader.
But Ramesh and the 50 or so other middle school students in the Jennings Community Learning Center chess program are improving their game rapidly, with the top 10 players winning the state middle school championship in their division two years ago and placing second this year.
“There’s going to come a day when I’m losing quite often,” Jones said.
The program offers the students more than the chance to improve their gamesmanship. The team unites students from more than a dozen countries, who speak almost as many languages.
The common language they all speak: chess.
“Everybody comes together and plays this simple game,” ninth-grader Jayla Roberson said. The 15-year-old is now at North High but was on the middle school team last year and still joins them for practices every Thursday.
Jennings is remarkably diverse due to the influx of resettled refugees in North Akron. About a third of the school is learning English as a second — or third, or fourth — language.
The school has translators on staff for a dozen languages, and can request more from other schools in the area that also serve the large refugee population.
“It’s just like being in an airport every day,” math teacher Joanne Cook, one of the chess team coaches, said of overhearing myriad languages spoken in the school’s hallways.
Chess practice in the library looks more like a model United Nations meeting, except no one has to pretend to be from another country.
Bruce Hukill, a retired teacher and the team’s other coach, said the program seems to have attracted such a diverse group of students, including native English speakers, because it is not language-dependent.
“It’s like math,” Hukill said. “You don’t have to be proficient in any language to understand chess.”
That hasn’t stopped the students from sharing their home dialects.
Sixth-grader Kaylee Thompson said one classmate tried to teach her to speak Nepali.
“I failed miserably,” she said. But it was still fun to try, she noted. And in chess practice, she sees more students from other countries than she does in her regular classes.
Chess can also be a rare chance for recently resettled students to see and experience something familiar, as cultures around the world play the game.
“I was like, I know this,” eighth-grader Sarmila Gurung said of the first time she came to chess club. She had learned to play from family back in Nepal before moving to the United States when she was 8.
The club existed before Jones became principal three years ago, but he helped turn it into a team that could compete — and win — across the state.
Jones, who grew up on the east side of Cleveland, competed in chess in middle school.
“It was such an enjoyable part of my life,” he said. “I just kind of pass it on to kids.”
He still comes to team practice to play against students every Thursday. During the week, several of them drop into his office to challenge him to a quick game.
They won’t have that chance next year. This is Jones’ last year as principal, retiring after 37 years in education. He promises to keep coming to at least some chess practices.
The joy, he said, is in watching the students improve throughout the year.
“Even after they play, they want to go over the game and write it down,” Jones said. “You really see them enjoying and wanting to become better.”
Contact reporter Jennifer Pignolet at firstname.lastname@example.org, at 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.