Envisioning the End Game: Why Social Contexts Matter For Success

It’s always a challenge to find an engaging, enlightening and entertaining movie that appeals across the generations in my household. We came across one recently called Life of a King (2013) available on Netflix.

It is based on the true story of Eugene Brown of Washington, DC, who was incarcerated for close to two decades for a botched bank robbery. During his incarceration, Brown learned to play chess. After his release, Brown sets up the Big Chair Chess Club, to teach inner-city youth how to play chess, how to “always think before you move”, the motto of Brown and the Club.

In the film, Brown faces an uphill battle of reestablishing himself after the lengthy incarceration, and part of this reestablishment is about reconnecting and reweaving himself into the social fabric of his community and family. He faces the indifference of his grown-up of children for whom he was never there, the difficulty of finding work as a convicted felon, and the presence of the people, economic pull and social webs that had been part of his previous life that led to his incarceration.

A friend gets him a job as a high school custodian; in a pinch, the principal asks him to babysit the perennial detention-goers, where there is all the typical stereotypes of inner-city youth: black, drug-dealing, unable or unwilling to learn, disrespectful, sexualized.

To the principal’s surprise, Brown not only handles the youth, but he begins to teach them the game of chess. When the principal finds out that he lied about his criminal record, she fires him. Brown, undaunted, founds a chess house in a derelict property and the Big Chair Chess Club, offering free chess lessons to inner-city neighbourhood youth, is born.

There is a lot of richness to this film, but for the purposes of this post, I wanted to focus on what the film suggests is important to the social contexts of learning, talent development and success.

During the scene, about a third way into the film, where the principal learns about Brown’s prior life and incarceration and fires him, Brown, dismayed, says:

“Chess is no different than life. These suburban kids, the know they get good grades, they go off to college. They know they’re going to own their own business some day, they envision the end game. But poor kids don’t think life that. I wasn’t taught like that. I didn’t see the end game, and it cost me, it cost me big.”

What’s revealing about this quote to me is how it acknowledges the social contexts of success, of developing one’s abilities and skills; more importantly, of teaching learners how to imagine, envision, to strive and to plan. I’ve written a lot on this blog about gritdeveloping others, and the the importance of organizational cultures to cultivate success. While the school has a chess program, it is Brown’s dogged efforts to build and sustain a community chess house, and connect with neighbourhood youth, and tutor and nurture their skills, and get them thinking about the end game, that is truly revelatory of why and how social institutions, social capital and networks, and institutional culture – one that affirms and believes that talent in chess can be gained.

Sure, Brown especially nurtures Tahim, who seems to have natural talent and instinct for the game. However, more importantly, Tahim and the other players learn to succeed precisely because there are leaders and mentors who care about them, there is the affirmative and growth-oriented institutional culture of the chess club and the opportunities it cultivates for them, including competing with other chess players and teams. In that sense, the end game to which Brown refers, is not only some end point to the trajectory of success, but the process of building and growing and connecting that imagines alternate futures and cultivates a social context for success to occur.



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