Franklin County, Mississippi, is about as Mississippi as it gets. Tucked in the southwest corner of the state, Franklin County counts 8,000 people and two stop lights among its residents. It's also one of the nation's fastest growing hotbeds for youth chess players.
60 Minutes had an excellent report on the county's chess program and the teacher behind it. It's a story so perfect for Hollywood that, frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if this 14-minute piece is one day Hollywood-ized into an actual "based on real events" motion picture: Lanky outsider somehow winds up in a godforsaken outpost to teach hillbilly kids about chess and, a long the way, a little about themselves.... Check Mate, Y'all, in theaters next Friday.
The hero of this story is Dr. Jeff Bulington -- who you could easily see Tim Robbins putting on his Andy Dufresne glasses to play the leading role in the Franklin County movie -- who was recruited by an unnamed benefactor to Franklin County after starting a successful chess program in inner-city Memphis.
Bulington grew up in rural Indiana and relates to the lives of the kids he leads. "If there are people there, it's not nowhere," he says. "It's a somewhere. It's just a somewhere that doesn't get a lot of attention."
Though the actual acts of playing chess and, say, football are completely different, the end result is largely the same: an activity that uses a backdoor into kids' minds to teach them lessons they would never learn sitting in a classroom.
"We teach history, we teach geography, we teach science, we teach math, we teach it all using the chess board," assistant coach Bobby Pool says.
"Them having the realization of their own potential was a beautiful moment," Bulington says.
Take this exchange, for example:
Kid A: Chess is something that I'm really good at for once.
Reporter: Has it changed you at all?
Kid B: It has. My grades have gone up.
Reporter: How much high they gone up?
Kid B: All my grades used to be low B's. Now they're A's and high B's.
Franklin County High School produced seven four-year college students among 93 graduates in 2016. That's just one in a sequence of unfortunate numbers for a county in the nation's poorest, least-educated state, a county that is relatively rich in Mississippi yet still nearly 25 percent below the national per-capita income average.
Given enough time, Bulington's program will likely change that.
"You always want to see your kids go further," father Mitch Hamm says. "And I think chess can be a vehicle to take them there. This is a window to see, 'There's a whole world out there. I don't need to set my goals at making eight dollars an hour. I need to set my goals at whatever I want to be.'"