Henry Lien (right) and fellow tutor Cesar Morales (left) react to students debating about what move to make, at San Pedro Elementary School, July 6, 2022. (Photo/Jeffrey Huang)
Henry Lien (right) and fellow tutor Cesar Morales (left) react to students debating about what move to make, at San Pedro Elementary School, July 6, 2022. (Photo/Jeffrey Huang)

Three years later, bar mitzvah boy’s gambit is still helping kids learn chess in San Rafael

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A mitzvah project is often a short-term requisite to becoming a b’nai mitzvah. Volunteering or raising money for a charity are typical ways many kids approach it.

But for 16-year-old Henry Lien of Mill Valley, a bar mitzvah project he started at age 12 never ended. Over the last four years it has become a passion, evolving into an expansive chess charity called Chess Pals.

Lien, a junior at the Branson School in Ross, celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation Rodef Sholom, which has an initiative called “Crossing the Street” that aims to connect the congregation with nearby Venetia Valley Elementary School.

Lien’s original project was to introduce chess to Venetia Valley students —  predominantly first-generation immigrants and many native Spanish speakers — and coach them to playing proficiency. Once he realized its positive impact, he decided to expand the project into other schools. He also wanted to continue something he found rewarding, which he believes is a great way to stimulate the brain to think strategically.

“Once I kind of found that passion for teaching or helping them, it was something I realized I could expand more upon,” he said.

The curriculum is based on an instructional, animated website called ChessKid. Each Chess Pals class usually teaches one concept and then tries to incorporate that new concept into a game.

Henry Lien helping the four students with a question about piece movement in the second class of the day on July 25, 2022, at San Pedro Elementary School in San Rafael.(Photo/Jeffrey Huang)
Henry Lien helping the four students with a question about piece movement in the second class of the day on July 25, 2022, at San Pedro Elementary School in San Rafael.
(Photo/Jeffrey Huang)

Chess Pals is now in five schools in the San Rafael school district, and this summer 250 students learned chess at a summer camp. Some classes are conducted in English, some in Spanish, and others with a combination of the two. Lien and one other tutor speak Spanish, but there remains an unmet demand — to his dismay, he said.

Lien decided to focus on the Latino community, knowing from his experience in Marin County chess programs that this population was underrepresented. He also wanted to take advantage of his ability to speak Spanish, a skill he learned from his father, who is fluent.

“Everyone has the innate ability (to play chess) as long as they practice,” he said, “so why shouldn’t they be exposed to it as well?”

Building a charity has posed challenges from the beginning, when he approached Venetia Valley for the first time.  “I just had to walk in and hope for the best, and it was tough because schools are sometimes bureaucratic and slow to get back to things,” he said. “It took a long time.”

To accommodate the growing footprint, Chess Pals has added several tutors and currently has seven. Most are high school students and two are eighth-graders.

Lien said finding and retaining tutors is the hardest part of managing his charity, in part because of the small recruitment pool: “high school kids who know how to teach, who also know chess and also like to teach, and don’t get paid,” he said.

To find teachers, Lien has reached out to his peers who have participated in the Marin County chess program formerly operated by Lanette and Jeff Gordon, whom Lien called “the parents of Marin chess.”

Henry Lien teaching a class to some summer camp students on July 25, 2022 at San Pedro Elementary School in San Rafael. (Photo/Jeffrey Huang)
Henry Lien teaching a class to some summer camp students on July 25, 2022 at San Pedro Elementary School in San Rafael. (Photo/Jeffrey Huang)

Lien and his fellow tutors also have had to deal with some students’ lack of interest in learning chess. They make sure to be supportive of those students.

“The main thing our teachers and I tell the kids is that chess is just a thing, so if you don’t like it, it’s OK. You can leave and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

When he was a seventh-grader, Lien didn’t imagine that his bar mitzvah project would evolve the way it has. It’s required adapting his approach, which he understands comes with risk.

“I have to give up more and more control and entrust other kids,” he said.

Lien is taking steps to make his organization more official. Chess Pals has applied for 501(c)(3) status, which will allow people to make tax-exempt donations. Moving forward, Bay Area Community Resources has agreed to take over for Lien’s parents and cover costs.

Lien knows that he won’t be able to manage his charity forever, as he plans to attend college. He hopes that doesn’t stop the progress that Chess Pals has made, and that somebody new will take over once he leaves.

“If the program can’t survive without me, I’ve failed,” he said. “The hope is growing [it] enough so that it can’t fail.”

Gabe Fisher
Gabe Fisher

Gabe Fisher is a freelance journalist who served as interim editorial assistant at J. in 2022. Follow him on Twitter @ItsGabeFisher.