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Teaching life lessons through chess by helping kids in juvenile detention

"Chess teaches them that if they're going to be successful they have to not be as impulsive, and they have to think," Tyus said.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — At the Saint Louis Chess Club, every day brings new choices and more and more people are seeing value in that.

"We have about a thousand members and I think 20 or 30,000 go to the Hall of Fame for the exhibitions," said Rex Sinquefield, the founder and president of the Chess Club.

James Tyus is one those members who was captivated after walking in one day and playing against an 18-year-old stranger.

"He was so good, and I didn't know anybody could be that good. And so I said, 'Can you teach me?,'" Tyus recalled.

And Tyus was soon making moves in an unexpected direction.

He ran away from home when he was just 14.

"I had an abusive home," said Tyus. "Drug addiction, stepfather, abuse, you know, abusive, those type of things."

In good moments, his stepfather did teach him the basics of chess. Then, after fleeing to the safety of his grandmother in East St. Louis, he soon joined the high school chess team.

"And then, you know, the girls kinda say he's smart," Tyus said, laughing. "So that was something that was special."

These days, the Army veteran and college graduate is a St. Louis County Juvenile Detention Officer and his latest gambit, teaching chess to the kids in Juvie.

"You know kids, they ask 'What are you doing?' Then they'll say, 'I can beat you!'" Tyus said. "The next thing you know they're playing and chess is so contagious."

At first, Torrion Robinson said it was a good distraction.

"Using it to keep my mind off the situation I'm in," Robinson told us from inside the Juvenile Detention Center.

But Tyus knew the distraction can also be an education.

"These kids can be very impulsive and they make poor decisions. And so chess teaches them that if they're going to be successful they have to not be as impulsive, and they have to think," Tyus said.

And Robinson, who was arrested for armed robbery, is now one of his star pupils.

"It seems every time I sit down at the chess table, we always got a crowd of people watching on," Robinson said. "The chess can be so intense like everybody want to see what's going on."

The officer is now an author.

His book "Checkmate Life" highlights the many parallels between chess and life.

And that book is also an animated series on YouTube.

"Decisions have consequences," added Sinquefield. "And when they make decisions over the chess board, they are happy or sad because they get an immediate consequence or maybe a few moves down the road they see the effect of, but they learn from that."

Life lessons on a chessboard.

James Tyus shows that when you see what you think is a good move, look for a better one.

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