ST. LOUIS—At a school for troubled kids on this city's tough North Side, life's lessons are learned on a chessboard.
In Room 103, Marqwon, 16 years old, kicked out of his regular school for bringing in a nail-studded piece of wood, tapped his forefinger in the air as he mapped out his next six moves.
Across the board, 15-year-old Joann, sent here after throwing a punch at a classmate, was losing the match and wasn't happy about it.
"You're just embarrassing me," she said, toppling her king with a smack. "You know it's over."
Her action coaxed chess instructor Bill Thompson to the table. "Let's not give up," he said. "Let's think of a way to get out of this."
Chess has been a part of after-school programs for at least 40 years, but mainly in the suburbs. In the last decade, it has exploded in popularity in urban areas as research showed that students who play chess do better on achievement exams, especially math.
But few schools offer chess as an academic subject—and fewer still require it, especially for students already labeled as troublemakers, like the ones here.
Innovative Concept Academy was opened last year by a St. Louis Juvenile Court Judge Jimmie Edwards. Tired of watching teenagers get kicked out of school, land in his courtroom and then drop out, Mr. Edwards created his own school to nurture students back to academic, emotional and mental health. The city's school district pays for the building and teachers, while money from not-for-profit groups provides the rest of the funding.
The Academy, housed in a three-story former middle school, caters to sixth through 12th graders who have either been suspended or expelled for fighting, bringing weapons to class, getting caught with drugs or other illegal or disruptive behavior.
The top floor of the three-story school is occupied by teenagers who have been criminally charged and gone through the juvenile court system.
Students attend class from 9 a.m. until 5:45 p.m. and have access to counselors, psychologists and mentors. Aside from the academics, the school offers courses in ballroom dance, creative writing and golf.
The twice weekly chess classes are mandatory for most of the school's 97 students and are an integral part of Mr. Edwards's strategy to curb bad behavior and teach alternatives to violence. He knows that chess won't solve all the behavior problems, but says it offers lessons about self-control and critical thinking.
"Most of my kids are impulsive, reactionary and they lash out without thinking through the consequences," said Mr. Edwards, who walks the school's halls almost daily. "Chess teaches them patience and teaches them that there are consequences to bad decisions."
"In chess, you can lose your queen," he added. "In life, you can lose your life."
The chess program at the Academy is paid for by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, which opened in 2008 and already has 700 members.
The club wants to make St. Louis the chess capital of the U.S. and has hosted the national chess, national women's chess and junior chess championships.
About a million students play chess in local clubs and after-school programs, officials of the United States Chess Federation estimate. Chuck Lovingood, who oversees scholastic chess programs for the non-profit group, said chess teaches students problem-solving, focus and how to build—then execute–a plan.
"Chess is not a game of instant gratification, and that is an important life skill for all children to learn," he said.
In one 90-minute chess class earlier this week, many life lessons were on display.
When the instructor suggested Joann find a way out of her predicament—Marqwon had her Queen trapped in one corner of the board—she plotted a strategy to escape, then knock off his knight.
Joann, who had never played chess until this school year, eventually lost. But she captured seven of Marqwon's pieces and made him chase her around the board.
Chess, said Joann, "messes with your brain and makes you think about something before you do it. And it makes you think there's a way out of something if you think about it hard enough."
Jesus, an 18-year-old junior, learned the hard way that impulsiveness is a bad trait in chess. When an opponent tried to capture Jesus' pawn with a knight, Jesus reached for his rook, hoping to take the opponent's knight.
But the boy had not yet lifted his hand to complete his initial move and he quickly pulled back his knight.
"Bro, you're cheating," Jesus screamed out.
But the opponent pointed out that, until he lifted his hand off the piece, the move was not complete. Jesus leaned back in his chair, covered his face with his hands and groaned. "You're right," he said.