A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Pamajo House Men’s Shelter in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. The shelter has 200 beds for men without homes, and specializes in taking in men who other shelters refused to house. I had been invited to speak to the group about the effect chess had had on my life, and although I have never been homeless, I could quickly see that those men and I shared a similar background of growing up in poverty, in single parent households, violence in our neighborhoods, and a myriad of issues that make it a bit more challenging to navigate a path to a successful life.
The one thing that struck me while I was there, that I had to struggle myself not to fall into, was the sense of limited hope that pervaded the space. These were men that time forgot, men who may have, as children, once dreamt about becoming doctors and lawyers, basketball players and movie stars, teachers and entrepreneurs but who had seen those dreams erased by the circumstances of their lives. Even those who may have still harbored some small sense of hope about turning their future around were absolutely clear on how crushingly difficult the climb back would be. Most just seemed more or less okay with having a roof over their heads, a bed to sleep in, and three square meals a day.
Of course, those of you who know me know that I am a relentless optimist, so I forged ahead and told them my story of growing up with my grandmother in Jamaica for 10 years while my mother, who had left when I was 2, worked long and hard hours here in the States so that she could live her dream of bringing her three children to a better life. She would eventually get our papers together and move us to Brownsville, Brooklyn neighborhood, that had its fair share of drug dealers and prostitutes, car thieves and frequent police searches. It wasn’t much to start with, but it was a chance to start anew, and we all knew that we were there by the determination of two women (my mother and my grandmother, who has since passed on) and that we were obligated to fulfill their aspirations for us by working hard and making something of ourselves.
It was two years into my time in America when I found chess. Actually a friend of mine was playing in high school and being a cocky competitive kid I challenged him to a game. He crushed me. Later I was in our school library and I happened to see a book on chess. I checked out the book, took it home, studied it cover to cover, and went back to challenge my friend. He crushed me again. It turns out that he happened to have read more than one book, but that beating sparked a love for the game in me that completely changed the trajectory of my life. Pretty soon I was looking for chess players wherever I could find them, at the school club, my neighborhood, in the local Y. I even found some hustlers in the parks of NY, who I will warn you are not the right people to play if you want to keep your lunch money. I started playing in the historic Manhattan and the Marshall Chess Clubs, and my eyes were opened to a world I could not have imagined when I first lost to my high school friend.
Now, looking back, I’m amazed how far the game has taken me. I’ve gotten to travel around the world playing in tournaments, I’ve done commentary for some of the most important chess events of all time (one or two right here in St. Louis), written two or three books, recorded a few DVDs, and even organized a couple of small tournaments. I have to confess though that of all my accomplishments, I am most proud of the work I’ve done coaching young people who have grown up in circumstances similar to mine.
To be affected by this great game is one thing, but to watch the effect it has on a young mind as they traverse the wonderland that is a chessboard brings a real joy that has to be experienced to be really understood. I’ve seen many of those young people I coached take on the life lessons that chess has to offer – patience, determination, focus, sportsmanship, critical thinking, respect for another person’s ideas – and dramatically turn their lives around. Those same young people have gone on to attend and graduate from Universities such as Yale, Harvard, University of Michigan, NYU, University of Maryland and many others. One of those young people, Kasaun Henry, was the captain of my chess team that won a National junior school Championship back in 1991. Despite coming from a rough Central Harlem neighborhood where he was the man of the house at 13, helping his mother to take care of his two older sisters’ six children, he would spend all his spare time reading every chess book I gave him or that he could get his hands on. I’ll never forget the day we went to our first National Championship in Tempe, Arizona, and when I asked all our players if they wanted to play in the Unrated section where they had a good chance to win a trophy, or in the Open section where they would likely take it on the chin, Kasaun was the only one among them who said he wanted to battle against the best young players in the country. He ended up winning 4 games out of 7 and getting a trophy for top Unrated player. He inspired the team to our title the following year, and it’s no wonder he now holds 3 Master’s Degrees and is working on his PhD. I should mention that a month before the Nationals, someone set fire to his building, and he and his family had spend some time living in a homeless shelter.
I am honored to be a part of this initiative that the St. Louis Chess Club and Ascension are leading. I don’t need to guess whether or not this program will have a life-changing effect on at least some of the lives that it will touch. I’ve already visited a few of the schools in Ferguson, and I’ve seen that familiar sense of enthusiasm that always fills a room when kids are playing chess. I’m always happy when I ask a classroom full of kids which one of them thinks they can beat me and several hands fly into the air. To nurture self-confidence and build self-esteem in a young person is a beautiful thing and chess has a way of inspiring young minds with its magic.
After I finished talking to those men at the shelter, I played eight of them in a simultaneous exhibition. A few of them made it clear that they thought they could beat me. Hope springs eternal at any age. I have to admit that one of them put up a tough fight. When I told that to the shelter’s director, he said that the man had learned to play chess in prison. Sadly, it was a story I had heard before. I offered some advice and did my usual trash-talking, and in the end, it felt like I was hanging out with my students. Who knew where these men might have ended up if someone had sat them down and taught them chess at a young age? I really cannot imagine where I would have been. The game cannot solve all of society’s problems, but it has a truly inexplicable power to help affect change. I’m grateful to be a part of that movement towards change, and I want to thank Ascension, the St. Louis chess Club, and everyone here for believing that every young person deserves the maximum effort we can extend to give them the tools to help inspire them to take control and change their lives for the better. Thank you so much for being here and thanks for your support.
[The above speech was delivered as a part of the fundraising event for “Your Move Chess” If you like, you can make an impact too! Learn more: ow.ly/YaTDt ]
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