Devanshi Rathi: Project Checkmate
By Devanshi Rathi, founder of Project Checkmate
I am Devanshi Rathi, a nineteen-year old currently studying for an undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley. I completed high school in New Delhi, India, where I am originally from. I started playing chess when I was eight years old, competing in various events and tournaments. As my passion for the sport developed, I felt a desire to encourage other people to enjoy the same thing and give back to the game that had given me so much.
However, I didn’t want to just set up any old chess club. I had noticed that many of the underprivileged children in my local area were lacking the support needed to access extra-curricular activities, sport included. This meant that their potential talents were going unnoticed. For me, chess seemed a good way to bridge the gap. Initially starting out with a focus on vulnerable children in the community, my focus soon expanded its scope to include those suffering from blindness. I quickly realised how important a non-distinguishing sport/game, such as chess, could be in the lives of the disabled. Chess is the only sport in the world where the blind can play on equal terms with others who aren’t visually impaired. The rules are the same and the board is made more accessible through the use of a braille surface and pieces. Chess helps develops the neurons, and as cliché as it might sound, it supports the overall development of one’s personality, as it teaches critical decision making skills and boosts one’s confidence. Based on this idea, in April 2016 I combined the two areas I cared most deeply about and launched the Devanshi Rathi Foundation’s first initiative – Project Checkmate.
Catering for the growing demand
I started off small with only a few students, educating them on the basics of chess. Those that were interested came back for more sessions, so I continued to develop their skills. Some were excited to learn something new, whilst others were keen to build on the few skills that they already had. Word soon spread about Project Checkmate, with regular attendees enjoying it so much they brought their friends along too. Thankfully, I was able to cater for more numbers with kindly donated chess boards.
As numbers started to increase, I started to expand the work of Project Checkmate to include the organising of chess tournaments, chess quizzes, history workshops, and sessions where we all sat and analysed the games of famous chess masters. Although all this activity was hugely positive and we were continuing to engage more and more young people in our project, I felt that me being just one person teaching so many students wasn’t productive enough for anyone involved! Being a full-time player myself, as well as a full-time student, I wasn’t able to go to as many on-site sessions as I would’ve wanted. So, I used online training to bridge this gap; using social media, as well as Skype, phone calls and email threads to converse with my students and keep up-to-date with what they are doing and learning. I also created online classes that people could follow and complete, when my schedule didn’t permit me to go and teach in person.
To complement this, I have since authored two short manuals - one on chess improvement and the other on enhancing one’s coaching/training abilities. Noticing that there weren’t many books in an accessible format, I worked with the National Association for the Blind in New Delhi to convert my books into Braille, ensuring that the teaching is as accessible as possible for those wanting to learn.
Going with the flow
With regards to future plans, I am keeping things fluid. I just want to go with the flow. Of course, my main goal is to make my work into a full-scale social enterprise, but this will need me to take the time and work on a solid proposal and perhaps pitch to investors and the like. I’m aware this process shouldn’t be rushed, so I’m happy to not have anything decided concretely yet, and instead continue to learn and discover what works for me and the people I’m working with through our Project Checkmate pilot in New Delhi. So, for now all I can say is… watch this space!
I do hope, however, that the future sees more sports (particularly chess) reap success in my country, with increased resources and development opportunities. To me, it’s also important to keep things youth-focused. A youth voice is important because youth are the future of tomorrow and the influencers of decisions today.
Top 3 tips for building a project:
1. Start small. I would say to just start somewhere, even if it’s in a very small way. The smallest acts can deliver the biggest impact, so never under-estimate your power to create change.
2. Keep persevering. It’s important to keep iterating, finding what works best for you and the people that you are providing a service to. Don’t put pressure on yourself to find the golden solution right at the beginning, if you rush it you’ll likely miss something important, so give yourself the time and accept that there will be a lot of trial and error.
3. Don’t give up! Finally, don’t give up on any hope after losses or failures because they are usually only temporary - if one works really hard and doesn’t keep thinking about the results (or lack of) you will eventually find what you’re looking for.
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