For young black men living in the inner-city jungle that’s Washington, D.C., the game of chess provides an opportunity to develop critical thinking skills that prove essential in avoiding common pitfalls. It also allows them to revel in each other’s company and enjoy friendly competition.
Last weekend, chess connoisseurs of various ages gathered for an afternoon that included chess matches, trash talking, and exchanges about strategy. The event, touted as “Chess Fun Day” attracted dozens of men from across the D.C. metropolitan area that converged on the Big Chair Chess Club in Northeast for the festivities.
“We wanted to bring some enlightenment about chess and its history. Our black community should know that it’s something to do,” Ricky Norman, manager of the Big Chair Chess Club, told AllEyesOnDC during the daylong gathering on Saturday, Feb. 27.
Since its 2003 inception by convict-turned-chess teacher Eugene Brown, the Big Chair Chess Club has been instrumental in helping at-risk District students change their lives for the better. The nonprofit organization’s mantra “[T]hink before you move” draws parallels between navigating the chessboard and making prudent life decisions. Norman said chess can be a tool for self-improvement, helping young people increase discipline and focus.
“For me, chess can be very personal. I get people who come in [the Big Chair Chess Club] and want to compare themselves to others. It’s about doing the best you can and improving. Some people say chess makes you think. I say that this game gives you an opportunity to think. That’s when the epiphany comes,” said Norman, a 54-year-old Northeast resident.
Since chess Grandmaster champion Bobby Fischer popularized the game in the 1950s, people of various ages around the world have taken to the chessboard at home, in school, recreation centers, and during tournaments. Research has confirmed the benefits of playing chess, including brain stimulation, prevention of Alzheimer’s, and an increase in problem-solving skills.
Under the direction of the Big Chair Chess Club, students from Kimball Elementary School in Southeast have won seven city championships. School administrators also noted behavioral changes in students who participated in the extracurricular program. Years later, Norman and his colleagues are carrying on that legacy from the confines of Big Chair Chess Club’s Deanwood-based abode.
Throughout much of Saturday afternoon, men occupying the chess boards in the clubhouse stared attentively at the white and black pieces as old school R&B tunes blared from loudspeakers. Shortly after stepping through the doors of the Big Chair Chess Club, guests watched ongoing matches while nibbling on snacks and chatting amongst one another. Photos of historic and contemporary black figures lined the walls. Stacks of the instructional material also sat on wooden tables.
For Germantown, Maryland resident James Washington, Chess Fun Day would be an experience for the entire family. That afternoon, he and his wife watched as Norman showed his grandchildren how to move each of the pieces on the board. His son Ben, an ardent chess player, gleefully recorded the short session.
“My grandchildren been exposed to chess at home before but it’s great to see how enthusiastic they are playing with a professional. Even though they may not know all of the rules, they’re blessed with the basics,” Washington, 60, told AllEyesOnDC. “Everyone has to deal with the game of chess at their own level. It’s the same thing with life. The children need to deal with what they can understand and grasp it so they can progress. It’s all about the decisions you need to make for your next steps.”
Local chess coach and the longtime Big Chair Chess Club member Doc said learning the game opened up many doors for him in his social and professional life. Since Brown taught him chess at Kimball more than a decade ago, Doc has imparted his knowledge on young black men seeking mentorship.
“I often see students who don’t want to play sports but love chess. Some of them get proactive, picking up books from the library. They get excited about the game and don’t want to lose,” Doc, a chess coach at Eagle Academy Charter School in Congress Heights and Washington Yu Ying Charter School, a Chinese immersion center near the National Cathedral in Northwest, told AllEyesOnDC.
“In this game, they get the mental challenge they don’t receive in school. This is where they learn life lessons including outlining and contingency planning. I see what the game does and the type of people it attracts. It takes a lot of mental fortitude to play an hour and a half of chess,” Doc added.
Anthony Womack, a chess player of eight years and organizer, shared similar thoughts. He revealed his plans to introduce chess to his students after watching “Life of King,” a movie about Brown starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. On Saturday afternoon, he played several games of chess and chatted with elders about their life experiences.
“I just wanted to feel the spirit and ambiance of being around other chess players. This game is a meeting of the minds,” Womack, founder of MisUnderstood, a Halifax, Virginia-based life skills training program for young men, told AllEyesOnDC.
“No matter what’s going on in life, amazing things happen when you push those pieces on the board. Folks say black people don’t play chess and it’s a challenge but I learned a lot from the game. After playing, I understood that you have to be prepared to move with life’s changes and pick up a new strategy,” Womack said with a smile.