Michael J. Sherman & Stephen Shutt

R. Stewart Rauch, Jr.
Robert Austrian

Michael J. Sherman and Stephen Shutt were disciplined, calculating men who observed and analyzed their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, before having their pawns do their ruthless bidding for them. No, these were not cold-hearted thugs, but rather chessmen. And not just self-absorbed chessmen, but dedicated math teachers, Michael Sherman at Vaux Junior High and Stephen Shutt at Douglass Elementary, who set up chess teams at their respective schools. This was a logical set-up since Douglass was a feeder school for Vaux. Both public schools are in North Philadelphia, a tough area that had not been known for its chess players.

B ut like most devoted teachers, these men spent a good deal of their personal free time (and disposable income) coaching the teams, sponsoring trips, and mentoring the students. Chess does so much for a young person, by promoting patience, planning, and analytical thinking. These skills are especially valuable for young persons faced with seemingly limited choices and options. Moreover, studies have shown that students who play chess develop significantly higher math and reading scores (and better grades) than control groups that do not play chess. And winning builds confidence.

At the time the award was made, the chess team at Vaux Junior High, under Sherman, was preparing to go to Yugoslavia for a rematch (hoping to tie up their 0-1 loss to students from Belgrade, whom they had played via satellite). With no financial support from the Philadelphia School District, while in Belgrade the students stayed at the homes of host families. Although losing to the Yugoslavians, the Vaux team had won four city championships, three state championships, and two national championships. Shutt’s chess players were no slouches either. Founded in 1971, his team had placed nationally and many of its team members had gone on to join the Vaux team. Shutt had his young players practicing two hours a day.

By 1983 the Vaux team, dubbed in 1977 as the Bad Bishops (the Douglass team was a tamer Mighty Pawns—the inspiration for a 1987 PBS Wonderworks telemovie of the same name) and by then under another coach (Sherman left in 1979), had racked up eight national championships (seven consecutive, 1977-1983). By 1987 the Mighty Pawns had won twelve straight elementary school titles. Shutt said of competitive chess: “Turn kids on to chess, and you’ll see they love the strategizing, the scheming. Take a high-energy kid and give him a competitive thing, and he’ll stay rooted to the spot.” Shutt, who became a faculty member in the Mentally Gifted Program at the Julia Masterman School, set up a chess team at Masterman, which has traveled to tournaments in Israel and Iceland. He is a leading advocate of the advantages of competitive chess for students.

The Award Committee gave the prize to the two teachers “for demonstrating to us the nobility of teaching when we often are lost in the troubles that beset its institutions; for removing the blinders from youth so they can see the possible horizons; and for helping the rest of us to understand that all our youth have potential and deserve our encouragement and support in exercising their brain power.”

Lee Arnold

Sources: “The ‘Bad Bishops’: Philadelphia Teen-agers Win Fifth Straight Chess Title,” Ebony, vol. 36, no. 12 (Oct. 1981); Lee Winfrey, “Chess Best,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 14, 1987; Lini S. Kadaba, “Game of Kings? It’s Elementary,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 31, 2001; Laura J. Bruch, “A School Moves Back to Chess,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 16, 1996; Dale Mezzacappa, “Masterman’s Chess Team Has All the Right Moves,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 7, 1992; “The Chess Drum’s Historic Moments: Roberts Vaux ‘Bad Bishops,’” http://www.thechessdrum.net/historicmoments/HM_mayjun03.html; “Steve Shutt Campaign Letter,” http://www.chessnews.org/Shutt1.htm; Christopher McDougall, “Youngsters Intrigued by Kasparov,” http://www.kernel.uky.edu/1996/spring/0213/n6.html. The following are collected in Philadelphia Award Records, Series 2 (Recipients & Nominees), Box 7, folder 16: press release, newspaper clippings.