Chess has been around for 1,500 years but until a couple of summers ago the ancient game was still mostly a mystery to the folks of rural Franklin County, Mississippi. Few had ever played chess before, many confused it with checkers. A chess board was as out of place in the county as a skyscraper. But as we first reported in March, that all changed when a tall stranger arrived from Memphis to bring chess to the country with a belief that the game could transform a community. He was initially met with bewilderment. Who was this six-foot-six outsider and why would anyone come to Franklin County to teach chess? Two years later, a chess boom is underway in the unlikeliest of places.
Tucked deep in the southwest corner of Mississippi lies remote Franklin County, where the trains don’t stop any more. Half the county is covered by a national forest, the other half it seems by churches.
This is the buckle of the Bible belt. Seven thousand people live here and no one’s in a hurry. There are only two stop lights in the entire county and one elementary school.
“All the statistics, everything you look at, Mississippi is the poorest. It’s the dumbest. It’s the fattest. We know that the rest of the nation has that conception of us.”
So imagine everyone’s surprise when Dr. Jeff Bulington showed up at school to teach the kids of Franklin County a new subject: chess.
Jeff Bulington: So everybody say, “Checkmate.”
Sharyn Alfonsi: Before Dr. B came to town, had you played chess before?
Braden Ferrell: I didn’t have a clue how to move the pieces or nothing.
Donovan Moore: Only time I saw it was on TV…
Donovan Moore, Braden Ferrell, Parker Wilkinson, and Benson Schexnaydre didn’t know what to make of Dr. B, as he is known, when he first appeared in 2015.