NEWARK — Daryll Scipio was fresh out of Rutgers-Newark Law School when he received his first call for a favor in 2009. On the other end of the line, Scipio's friend was desperate for someone to represent his 17-year-old nephew, who had inexplicably traveled to Connecticut, punched through the glass of a mall jewelry counter and run away with the loot on behalf of insidious older friends. 

Scipio, stunned by the unskillfulness of the crime, couldn’t offer much in the way of criminal defense with a real estate background and no bar membership. But it got him thinking of a way to teach young people how to think before they move: His answer was a game of chess. 

“I was asking my friend, ‘Why did he make this decision?’ Chess just became a simple way to teach life skills and understanding the consequences of your actions. It’s also an easy way to mentor someone because it’s a bonding activity,” Scipio said. 

Sign Up for Newark Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

Soon after wishing his friend’s nephew the best of luck, Scipio and his two chess buddies, Alturrick Kenney and Michael Charity, started visiting West Side High School with boards and a passion for mentorship on lunch breaks. A decade later, Scipio is the executive director of a program whose success is as unexpected as the phone call he received years earlier. 

The Newark Chess Club, which celebrates its 10th anniversary at Newark Museum of Art on Dec. 10, now serves more than 40 district and charter schools through the Office of Expanded Learning Time. The registered 501c3 nonprofit reaches more than 400 students through the schools and the city’s recreation centers.

“It just kind of came together, there wasn’t really a plan. The students would just see us sitting there, three guys,” Scipio joked. 

The club has gone beyond the game to offer sophisticated programming and curriculum focused on confidence, influence and peer pressure, problem-solving and goal-setting. Informed by Scipio’s “theory of change,” the program exposes participants to consistent mentors and teaches critical life skills, measuring success through surveys that Scipio uses to build upon and improve the curriculum. 

For Scipio, the outcomes of his program are the ultimate checkmate. He found that after 16 consecutive weekly sessions, participants report that they are more patient, can better handle peer pressure, have improved focused and increased trust in their instincts. In pre- and post-program surveys, students’ understanding of the programs four pillars grew by 45 to 58%.

University High School sophomore and program participant Seth Robertson said before Newark Chess Club came into his life, he struggled with impulsiveness. The game has made him more aware of consequences, he said. 

“Now I’m more mature and able to see what’s going to happen if I do something bad, so I avoid that. Playing chess makes you think seven different steps ahead,” Robertson said. “It makes me a better student and a better son.”

Having come a long way from its humble origins, the growing program aims to meet its growing needs at the 10th anniversary gala, which marks the Newark Chess Club’s first-ever fundraising event. In its new stage of growth, the program is hoping to provide two semesters of chess instruction and mentorship plus summer camp at no cost to families. At an estimated $1,000 cost per child, Scipio said his goal is to bring in $300,000 to serve 300 more students in 2020. The club is also fielding requests to bring the program to Delaney Hall Correctional Facility and has plans to launch a sister program, Success with Chess, which would serve greater Essex County. 

The funding will provide mentorship, scholarships for tournament winners, equipment, life skills program workshop materials and free online chess instruction through chesskid.com. 

“I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to participate in the program for all these years. It’s been a blessing for me and the folks who run the program to be able to provide this service because it’s not a heavy lift, the more mentors we have the better. It’s really about the mentorship,” Scipio said.