An old school game gets a new following
Last week we brought you the story of the so-called Chess Cinderella, Dyhemia Young. The foster child won a college scholarship at a prestigious chess tournament despite obstacles like limited funds and an unstable home situation.
DYHEMIA YOUNG: I more identify with the diamond in the rough more than the Cinderella story because a diamond has to be pressure put on and you have to mold it and shape it and shine it to get it to be a diamond. And I’m still going through my pressure and molding and you know, all the shining and stuff.
Young was fortunate to find an activity she enjoyed and excelled at – that helped her find focus and discipline in her chaotic life. The Hip Hop Chess Federation and its founder, Adisa Banjoko, were a part of that success. For a lot of young people, these kinds of programs are a lifeline. They help kids stay on track, and out of trouble. KALW’s Jen Chien has more.
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JEN CHIEN: Lunchtime at John O’Connell High School is a rush of activity, and it’s not just about eating. Up in the library, a boisterous book club is meeting in one corner, while in another, a few students are spending their precious minutes on a surprisingly old-school pursuit – playing chess.
CHIEN: How do you think this game is going?
CHIEN: Why is the game going great?
SAM: Cuz I'mma win, not Adisa.
ADISA BANJOKO: He always talks crazy, then he cries quietly at the end.
CHIEN: Is that true?
BANJOKO: (laughing) Yes, it is, he knows he does...
Sophomore Sam Martin is playing a rough and tumble game against mentor Adisa Banjoko, who started the chess program here at O’Connell. Banjoko is a journalist who’s covered hip-hop for many years.
BANJOKO: I started the Hip Hop Chess Federation to fuse music, chess, and the martial arts so we could promote unity, strategy, and non-violence.
Banjoko started as a volunteer at O’Connell, working with the school librarian Elaine Moskowitz to bring in some boards and see how chess would land with the kids. It’s landed well.
ELAINE MOSKOWITZ: We have a really popular chess program at lunch. Last year, more than 10% of the school population participated in our lunchtime chess tournaments.
That may not sound like much, but it’s a lot for a club – and it includes kids from all kinds of backgrounds – a real microcosm of the school.
MOSKOWITZ: It reaches so many different types of intelligences, that students with all different kinds of talents and abilities and interests are able to gravitate to the game.
SAM: I at least beat you twice!
ANDREW: Yeah but Wei-Ming was the winner of all time... I plan to be the winner this year!
Banjoko recognized the power of chess to break down social barriers in 2004, when he gave a career talk at San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall. He’d been brought in to talk about writing and journalism, but the kids were not into it.
BANJOKO: All they wanted to talk about was did you ever meet Snoop Dogg? Immortal Technique? JT the Bigga Figga?
Banjoko says the room descended into chaos and noise. Following a hunch, he brought out a chessboard that he happened to have with him, and asked if anyone knew how to play. A number of hands shot up. The mood of the room started to shift. Banjoko proposed an impromptu tournament, and then he saw some amazing things unfold.
BANJOKO: These two black kids were playing, and this white kid was telling one of them don’t move the horse. And the guy turned to him and said. “Shut up white boy; have a seat.” And you could see he was kinda scared so he just kinda got quiet. Then he moved the horse, lost the horse, lost the game. I saw the whole room look at that white kid with a whole new level of respect.
There was another kid who was really out of shape and he was like, “I’m actually the best chess player here.” And everyone was like, “Man, this ain’t a sandwich contest.” Everyone starts laughing. He was trying to endure the humiliation. And he really did beat everybody.
And so it was awesome to see that because of chess, racial barriers broke down, and because of chess, social stereotypes about different kids just evaporated, and that’s … I think that was probably when the organization was actually born.
Eventually, Banjoko took his idea to O’Connell High, where he volunteered during the lunch hour. He now works at the school as a full-time security guard, and connects with many of the kids through the chess program.
BANJOKO: It exposes me directly to the kids that have the biggest personal and social issues. I get to observe them and see if or how I can help. Sometimes there are things that chess cannot address and I don’t have any illusions about that. I just use the consistency of playing chess, like with Sam, I just want to have a direct line to Sam.
BANJOKO: Sam's strategy is to put the two bishops toward the center early, and then lay and pray.
SAM: No, not lay and pray.
BANJOKO: When Sam feels frustrated or in trouble, he feels like he can come to me and I can help him navigate out of that.
Banjoko says he also uses the game as a place to teach life lessons. For example, there’s the poison pawn strategy, where your opponent puts out a pawn for you to take with a more powerful piece, which leaves you exposed and vulnerable.
BANJOKO: You don’t have to pick up everything that someone tries to hand you. Whether it’s dope, whether it’s an opportunity at quick money. These things that seem very innocent: “Oh it’s just a pawn,” but you just sacrificed a huge part of your life...
BANJOKO: Still, still with the bishops dude? You went the whole summer and didn't come up with one different part of your opening dude?
BANJOKO: You didn't even practice did you, I can tell. Get out of here...
BANJOKO: One of the reasons I have the HHCF is to get young males and females comfortable showcasing their intelligence. So many times they’re willing to show you their gold grill, they’re willing to show you some crudely-made tattoo, done in their parents’ basement or whatever. But show me your intelligence, be confident in that. That’s what we’re trying to make a habit of, you know.
There are plans for a tournament at O’Connell High next month that will bring together chess players from other schools in the district, and Banjoko is looking to put together a more public event featuring martial artists and hip-hop artists like the RZA, a long-time supporter of the organization. Mostly, though, the focus is on helping kids stay out of trouble, finish school, and focus on their future, whatever that may be.
BANJOKO: The Hip Hop Chess Federation does not exist to create chess champions or world-class fighters. All we want to do is to use the tools to open kids up to identify who they truly are and go be that, to the best of their ability. That’s it.
Well, that, and also to play some hardcore chess along the way.
SAM: Uh-uh, nope, you know the rules.
BANJOKO: I watched you touch and move that knight several times, huh. You wanna talk about touch and move?
Up in the library, sophomore Sam Martin finds his luck may be changing in the chess match with Banjoko.
BANJOKO: Uh-huh, that's what I thought, that is what ... Oh no! This is bad for me. Startin’ to be a good year for you, isn't it?
BANJOKO: Looking like it's gonna be a good year…
In San Francisco, I’m Jen Chien, for Crosscurrents.
The Hip Hop Chess Federation is just one outlet for young people to exercise their minds – do you know of another? You can give a shout out to your organization through our Facebook page.