“I began the process in about 2005, and from there, it just grew,” said LaRoche, the founder and president of Open Chess Play. “These kids would just play and I saw it was a great interest.”
People begin to show up, from all walks of life. People of every race and age, of any size and shape all find themselves in this room. Some are experts. Others are beginners, who began playing since a week ago. That doesn’t matter to LaRoche, because this time isn’t only for chess. It’s for social interaction. When you get there, he doesn’t want you playing with your friend, he wants you to branch out and play with somebody new. He wants you to experience something different.
“Everybody is equal on the chessboard,” said chess player and parent Kemau Hull. “It is a brilliant way to cross a lot of different language and culture gaps.”
LaRoche grew up in New York City in a household with nine siblings. LaRoche learned to play chess when he was 13, often playing with the elderly men of the neighborhood. He attended the University of Georgia in 1999 and graduated in 2003 with a degree in social work.
LaRoche began doing spoken work poetry in the Athens area after his graduation, eventually picking up the nickname, “Life the Griot” (or more commonly just “Life”). In 2005, he began using chess to teach kids to “Think before you move”, which is still the motto is used today. For LaRoche, it’s more than just chess. It means to better the community around him.
LaRoche began Open Chess Play in 2005, gathering the children he taught to play and organizing them to play each other. After the first Chess and Community Conference, held in the Georgia Center, Open Chess Play was asked to move into the Athens-Clarke County Library starting this year. Additionally, Life also hosts a “Chess and Pizza” event at Little Italy Pizzeria in downtown Athens once a month. There he pays for as many pizzas as he needs to feed all those who show up to play.
LaRoche has also been involved in many political agendas in the Athens area as well, the biggest being the multi-million dollar expansion of a prison in Athens-Clarke County. This was the major plot point of a movie that came out in early 2014 that was based around Life and his contributions to the community. The documentary has begun to air on local television.
“I believe having more programs would lead to a lower incarceration rate,” said Broderick Flanigan, the vice president of the Chess and Community Conference.
LaRoche doesn’t plan to stop here either. He has many plans for future events and expansion. He plans to take several kids to Washington, D.C. to compete in a chess tournament, as well as a trip to climb Stone Mountain. There are also plans to start a “Chess and Community Camp” to teach important life skills.
LaRoche has affected this community around him more than most people. His introductions of numerous social programs and his open heart and mind have given many kids who wouldn’t normally have a chance at success the gateway they need.
“I just do what I enjoy doing,” said LaRoche. “The answers are hidden in plain sight. We just gotta find them.”