Back in 1970 when he launched a chess program at Philadelphia's Frederick Douglass Elementary School, Stephen Shutt recalls, ''I'd say less than 10 percent of the kids knew what a chess set was.'' But things are certainly a lot different now.
Shutt's charges at the virtually all-black inner city school are known these days as the Mighty Pawns, and they've built themselves quite a reputation in the chess community. They finished a close second in the National Elementary School Championships in 1980 and 1981, then won the title in 1982.
''That was our strongest team ever,'' Shutt says. ''I'd started grooming some of them in second grade, and it all came together.''
Actually, it was nearby Vaux Junior High School that first earned widespread attention for the neighborhood kids, winning the national junior high championship in 1977 with a team comprised of youngsters who had been developed by Shutt. Vaux has continued its success, too, capturing the same title seven years in a row including 1983.
Unquestionably, the feats of these kids in a game with such an elitist image come as a surprise to some people.
''I get comments along those lines - implying that if it weren't for what we're doing these kids would automatically run the streets or be basketball players,'' Shutt said. ''That's ridiculous, of course. There's a wide range of personalities on our team. We have uncoordinated and studious types just like any group - and plenty of kids who weren't going to get into mischief in any event. They weren't all predestined to be delinquents.
''I'm sure some people think that way, though. So it's good if we can break down those stereotypes.''
And what about the kids themselves? Do they perhaps take a certain extra pride in demonstrating that black youngsters can compete successfully not only on the athletic field but in the intellectual arena as well?
''They don't verbalize it, but I'm sure they do to some extent,'' said Shutt, a math resources teacher who is a pretty good tournament competitor in his own right.
''One thing you have to realize, though, is that these kids never had certain misconceptions about the game. They never did think of it as a game only for Eastern European immigrants or college intellectuals!''
Indeed, the kids see it mainly as a way to have fun. Over the years Frederick Douglass has built up a friendly rivalry with another perennially strong team from Hastings-on-Hudson, N. Y. The latter club's emblem is a fish, and when Shutt's youngsters arrived at the 1982 tournament in Bloomington, Minn., they found the Hastings kids wearing T-shirts adorned with a big fish about to swallow two little black pawns.
''It was a psyche job - all in fun,'' recalls Shutt. ''So when my kids won, they made up a huge banner with a giant pawn that looked just like Pac-Man gobbling up a fish.''
The Philadelphia program could serve as a model for other cities. Shutt, the Vaux coach, and two representatives of a police and firemen's organization called Concerned Black Men, Inc., make up the board of a fund-raising foundation. The kids do their part, of course, by bringing back the trophies and recognition that make it easier to recruit both donors and new players.
You don't have to win national titles either. The United States Chess Federation recognizes that to young players - especially those of elementary school age - a trophy is pretty much a trophy. There were 55 team and individual trophies given out at this year's tournament - affording plenty of youngsters the chance to go back to their schools and say, in effect, ''here's what you can do.''
It works, too, though Shutt notes that getting youngsters to play chess can still be a tough job in some neighborhoods.
''Anything is harder when most of your friends are interested in other things ,'' he said. ''These kids are growing up in a very physically oriented, rough and tumble culture. To me, it says a little something more about a kid when he sticks to chess in a situation like that.''
Among those who have stuck to it is Howard Daniels, now a senior at the High School of Engineering and Science, and, at 17, the youngest black player ever to achieve the official rating of master. Four other alumni of the program are candidate masters, with more moving in that direction.
As for team competition, though, the Frederick Douglass-Vaux channel doesn't continue to one particular high school.
''We want them to split up at that point,'' Shutt said. ''They've had enough recognition, and now it's time to pick the right academic programs. We have some kids who are top students and can go to magnet schools geared to their talents, and some who aren't in that category. It wouldn't be right to try to keep a team together in that situation.''
Shutt's own team was in the throes of a ''rebuilding year'' and didn't do as well as usual in the 1983 tournament, which was won by another inner city school , P.S. 27 of Indianapolis. With the tradition the Mighty Pawns have built up, however, it's a good guess they'll soon be battling for top honors again. And as long as teachers like Shutt, Robert Cotter of this year's champions, and other such concerned men and women devote their time and effort to such programs, the future of scholastic chess looks bright indeed.