Chess is an opening gambit in the game of life

Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

Because someone believed in David Pierson’s intellectual abilities beyond his ACT college-placement test score, he not only graduated from college with honors in 1970 but also has taught English at the elementary and high school level for 27 years in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Pierson also has taught chess to thousands of students.

Pierson’s influence surpasses writing cohesive sentences. His life lessons, as a father figure, help students realize unimaginable achievements and demonstrate how classroom lessons apply to life.

“Mr. Pierson is making us learn things other than English,” said Riley King, 15. “He tells us stuff that doesn’t relate to English, like money isn’t the most important thing in the world.”

Pierson had just reminded students of their parents’ love for them and of the value of Catholic education by teaching them the daily cost of attending De La Salle High School.

Pierson’s way of teaching gives students possibilities, just as his professor many years ago at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond – Mrs. Brumfield – offered him.

“The core thing for me with the students is, ‘Follow your dreams and go ahead and see if you can do it,’” Pierson said.

Students need father figures

Pierson said his passion for teaching was created 27 years ago after he received a standing ovation from students at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School, who told him he was the first male teacher they had ever had.

“That made a great impact on me because I realized that many children today do not have a father figure in the home,” Pierson said. “I, who didn’t have a father figure in my own home, suddenly became the father figure for many.

“I don’t approach my job in the classroom as just a teacher but as a father who is trying to mold the young into good people.”

Uncle was a chess maestro

Pierson said an uncle, who liked to tout his own acumen at chess, introduced him to the game as a child. Pierson took that as a challenge to learn how to beat him, which he did in a short period of time.

When Pierson got to college, he realized he knew much less about the game than he thought, so he began studying it and teaching what he learned to children.

Pierson’s claim to fame is how he responds to defeat.

“I am the most checkmated human being in the game of chess,” he said.

It’s likely true, considering he has taught the game to more than 5,000 students at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Benilde School in Metairie and De La Salle, as well as at chess camps and tournaments sponsored by the Louisiana Scholastic Chess League, which he founded.

Pierson teaches chess to beginners by examining the end of the game so newcomers can master how chess pieces move.

“I didn’t realize at the time that this is close to the Russian method,” he said. “I drill this into the kids up to the level they are confident.”

After the basics, he follows up with an emphasis on chess strategies.

Chess makes you think

Adrian Piazon, 18, a De La Salle senior, is currently the highest-ranked chess player in Pierson’s 27-member chess club, which meets at 7 a.m. He began as a novice in eighth grade and says he’s gained problem-solving skills, among others.

“What I learned is there are so many ways to do a certain thing and to pay attention to the details,” Piazon said. “Whatever you aspire to do, you keep going at it, even if it doesn’t seem it will work out. You won’t reach your goal if you don’t try.”

“Chess improves reading and math skills” Pierson said. “It’s concentration; it’s focus; it’s looking at things more closely and actually thinking.”

Pierson recommended that his student Emma Mullen, 16, now a sophomore, try chess in ninth grade when she took his composition class. She said she would easily get distracted, and chess has definitely helped her.

Today’s reliance on social media and constant stimulation from music through earbuds have diminished students’ capacity to think and write, Pierson said.

“They are not alone with their own thoughts,” he said. “They lack that (freedom to imagine).”

He’s a writer at heart

Pierson said he has always loved reading and has a vivid imagination. As a child, he said he would pick apart books to discover how writers crafted words to get at the truth.

His favorite childhood author was Mark Twain. He considers William Shakespeare the greatest writer of all time, fascinated by the multiple storylines he concocted in his plays. Pierson founded a Shakespeare Club at De La Salle to illustrate to students the many ways to write a story.

Loves the written word 

His love for literature goes beyond the classroom. He’s written several short stories and self-published a book, “And Lead Us Not,” about a school dropout turned successful businessman who, by default, becomes president of the United States. The president has unconventional ideas that unravel when a former classmate rival – a newspaper reporter in their hometown – uncovers old secrets.

Pierson’s blog, “Bayou DaVinci,” about a crazy classroom English teacher who believes “that the Scopes monkey trial has stopped English teachers from teaching great writers like Shakespeare and Dante and Milton because they address the concept of God (which offends non-believers),” is now an e-book at barnesandnoble.com and debuts in print soon. 

Pierson also has two other books in the wings, a memoir, “The Epiphany of Grace Hymel,” a “heartwarming story about a woman and her struggles to raise and provide for her children,” Aline Moret Bakewell said.

Pierson will host a Facebook Live event Sept. 25 from 6-8 p.m. to read excerpts from and celebrate the audiobook release of “And Lead Us Not,” and the launch of Season 2 of the “Bayou Picayune” podcast. RSVP at  www.facebook.com/events/1245589065602387/

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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