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Executive director announces retirement for regional education program serving pupils in 15 counties

COURTESY PHOTO - Julie YoungThe Queen of Chess is hanging up her scepter and crown.

The executive director of Chess for Success, Julie Young, has announced plans to retire from the statewide nonprofit dedicated to teaching students how to stop — and think! — on and off the board.

"It captures their attention, and they can sit there for an hour and not get antsy." Young said in an interview. "At the tournament, you can hear a pin drop."

First hired as a part-time employee in 1998, Young shepherded Chess for Success for more than two decades as it grew from 20 sites within the Portland Public Schools district to its current 87 chess clubs in 15 counties in Oregon and Southwest Washington.

Its aim, then and now, is to serve high-poverty schools. Chess for Success has no cost, and every student receives a free vinyl chess board and pieces after joining. About 48 percent of enrolled students are non-white and 65 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

"They might not speak the same language, but they all understand the game," Young explained, "and they shake hands with their opponent, regardless of the outcome."

The organization has established a presence nearly everywhere: Butte Falls, a town of 500 in Jackson County; behavioral therapy schools, such as the Serendipity Center in Portland; Chemawa Indian School in Salem; and the correctional facilities operated by the Oregon Youth Authority.

The nonprofit now has four full-time employees, seven part-timers and more than 100 coaches, and operates within a yearly budget of about $625,000. Some 3,500 K-12 students are expected to participate in this year's State Chess Tournament, a number that grows every year.

Young, 71, isn't quite ready to give up the throne. She plans to stay on until a new executive director is found, and hopes to work as a volunteer and ambassador for Chess for Success after retiring.

That means students will have at least one more chance to challenge Young to a match at this year's tourney, to be held March 8 and 9 at the Oregon Convention Center. The Queen of Chess (yes, that really is her nickname) admits her own mastery of chess is "not great."

"They feel good after they play me, because they beat the Queen of Chess," she jokes. "I build self-esteem."

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