The mission of US Chess is to empower people, enrich lives, and enhance communities through chess. Faces of US Chess is a collection of stories that highlights the realization of this mission as told through personal narratives. Check back here or follow us on Instagram to find more stories from the US Chess community. Also look for us at a chess event in the future to share your story.
I’m one of those guys who fell in love during “The Queen’s Gambit.” I was texting a young lady I was interested in and I was asking what she was doing. She’s watching “The Queen’s Gambit.” I had no idea what it was. I googled it. I saw it was about chess, so I ordered a chessboard ‘cause I wanted to ask her on a date.
I don’t talk to the young lady anymore. But I absolutely fell in love with the game of chess. So she wasn’t the one, but the chess was. One hundred percent.
I learned the moves and everything like that in the seventh grade. But I didn’t play. I’m a lifetime video gamer. I went to Georgia Tech for computer programming. I love figuring things out. But my second stint, as an adult getting into chess — it hit my brain completely differently. I was playing all the time. I brought a board to work, I was playing on my phone. My good friend is the owner of the Anguished Barber [in Atlanta]. And I’m playing on my phone while he cuts my hair. He was, like, “Move your knight, move your bishop.” I’m, like, “Please don’t mess up my haircut.” And that’s when I found out he loved chess. I said, “We should do a chess night here. It’s on brand.” They have a really cool craft cocktail bar connected to the barbershop. And so that’s how it started. That’s when I started our first chess club. It was January 12th, 2021.
The very first chess meetup I had was five of us all together, and it slowly turned into what I call Checkmate Mondays. There hasn’t been an over-the-board chess scene in Atlanta where it’s cool to hang out or things like that. And it’s my proudest accomplishment, the community that we’ve built by making chess cool. I’ve had grandmasters, international masters pull up. I’ve had people who are just learning for the first time. Sometimes I just want to go hang out and be around a bunch of people who have some common sense. I say I haven’t met a chess player I don’t like. Everybody’s got their head on their shoulders — at least a little bit.
After a while I started organizing tournaments on Monday and Tuesday nights. They were mostly free to enter — the winner would get bragging rights and a bar tab. And then I started doing quarterly cash tournaments, double elimination, bringing people together, and they’ve drawn a crowd. The news came out one time and covered it. Now I have a new venue for Checkmate Mondays. We’ll be moving to Holiday Bar in West Midtown, which has this awesome outdoor space as well. I want to get the outdoor scene going.
I’ve got the opportunity to teach high school kids now. I love teaching the game and seeing what it does for mental health. I’m also really thankful a lot of the guys in the chess community trust me and respect me. Somebody in the community referred me to the people who were organizing this [HBCU Chess Classic]. I had no idea of the scale this was going to be. I didn’t know Maurice Ashley was involved. At first I was just, like, “If it’s chess, I’m down.” And once I started getting more details, I was nervous. I was nervous this morning [as chief tournament director].
My favorite thing about chess is that there’s nowhere else where you can see so many people from so many different walks of life all getting together. It doesn’t matter when they come to Checkmate Mondays — all that stuff goes to the side. This group of people, this community — you’re not going to see ‘em at a tea party or whatever. But when I talk about how proud I am of the community, that’s because I’m proud of the diversity.
If you’d asked me a couple years ago if I was I going to be a chess guy, I would’ve — well, I was still playing checkers. But now I’ve got a rook tattoo on my face. Oh yeah. I’m a lifer. I love the community.
I’ve always been a social person. I’ve been a bartender for about the last 10 years. After learning more about myself and talking to a therapist, I realized that I’m a giver. I get filled up by creating a space. I understand how much it means to people. It’s something that I love.
Sometimes I think, “I’ll just put the board out.” I’ll just go — I’ll go to the park, I’ll go to our Beltline. It’s a very popular walkable area and it’s amazing how many people just gravitate toward [the chessboard]. There are so many people that want over-the-board chess, but they just don’t know where to go or realize that there’s a community out there. But I’m a proud nerd. I love gaming, I love eSports. And I think with the rise of all that along with chess, now’s a better time than ever.
I’ve also started doing more rated tournaments and I’ve been working with my coach. He’s a local. NM Deepak Aaron. Yeah, that’s my guy. He’s really taken me under his wing. We had our fifth lesson yesterday and he wants to make me a national master and I just know I can do it. I’m hungry. Oh, I know I can do it. I know. I’m not very close. I’m still in my provisional games. But that’s my goal. People know me as the nice guy who brings people together and loves chess. Now I want to be the nice guy that you don’t want to sit across the board from.
Last year we didn't have a chess coach. I really love math, but we didn't have a math club. So I said, “Okay, I want to be the chess sponsor.” We barely survived our first year. We had five to 10 players, but they were really good players and really good kids and really good students. So this year I said, “Let’s get more students who are interested in chess.” There was a club fair and we promoted chess there and had an amazing response. We got a lot of signatures and we ended up with 60 members. After this I wanted to do something else, something special for them because they deserved it. And I Googled — believe it or not — where to take high schoolers to play more challenging chess. There was one tournament in Seattle in January but that was too early and then I saw this one was in April. I said to them, “I want to take you to Washington.” And they were stunned, saying, “What, miss? What did you say?”
“Don't worry. Just play.” And now we are here.
We have received such amazing support. We use lichess.com that the Miami [Florida school] district sponsors along with our transportation costs. The rest was covered by my school, iMater Preparatory Academy High School. We have an amazing principal and they're very understanding so the kids and families don’t have to pay a cent. Otherwise, we would not have been able to make it and the kids would not have gotten to come here — they can’t believe that they are here [at the National High School tournament].
On Thursday there were a couple of side events here at the tournament — blitz and such, but I said, “No, no, we will not participate. We need to see Washington.” I told them for today there wouldn’t be any chess. It’s only cherry blossoms, the Capitol, Supreme Court, library, botanical garden, the White House, and the Lincoln monument. We saw a lot. I asked them, “What did you like the most?” Cherry blossoms. Can you imagine? The White House was right there, but I was taking them to the cherries and they were like, “Wait, miss, where are you going? The White House is there.” I put them under the cherry trees and it was amazing. If you know Hialeah [Florida] — it’s a really tough neighborhood. And you would never think of these kids under the cherry trees, but that’s what we did and that’s what they liked the most. I want to cry when I think about them under the cherry blossoms, but I can’t, because I want them to understand this is normal. They deserve these experiences, just like everyone else. And I'm so sorry that I cannot bring more kids, but you know, we are a Title I school and we don't have the money. So now I need to figure out how to fundraise.
These kids need to be here so they can see all of this. They need to go out and play other people so they will see other openings, other moves, and also other perspectives, things they don’t get exposed to otherwise. It's life changing. Some of them have never been outside of Florida. Some of them just arrived from Cuba. So they need to have the opportunity to see this. And I tell them, “Look. Don't just play chess. Look around, look. Enjoy the game — but also the moment — enjoy everything. Don't be closed off. Open yourself to different cultures, different people, different approaches.” Because teaching them chess — that's the easy part. But [teaching them] everything else — about life, about time management, how dedicated they need to be — [then] in future, when they get a job or go to college, they will know what to do. They'll be ready for life. Chess is a life changer.
“She hasn’t played a full game before. I’m honestly surprised at how well she did. I didn’t know she knew how the pieces move. She plays on the app at home, but she hasn’t actually played a game with anyone before today.”
Shrika has just finished a full blitz game against GM Rashad Babaev at the All-Comers Blitz at the National High School championship. Her father is shocked. She’s five and her brother Tanish is eight. The family traveled to D.C. from North Carolina so Tanish could compete in the Under 800 section. Shrika was supposed to simply tag along.
“Who taught you to play chess?” I ask Tanish.
“My dad taught me. I saw this red box that said ‘Chess.’ Then my dad said, ‘This is chess.’ I was interested so that’s when my dad taught me.” Dad watches proudly, nodding his head.
“Is your dad good at chess?”
Shrika, without missing a beat: “My brother beats him.”
Tanish: “Well, when I started, he usually won. But now you know, I'm smarter than him, so I usually win now.” Dad laughs, but the nodding stops.
“Can you tell me why you like chess?”
Tanish: “Because it’s a brain game. It’s also fun to play, like, moving pieces and thinking, so I like that. Because I like to think. I like to think a lot. And I don't want any physical games. I want to use my brain. So I get smarter.”
“Which color do you like to play?” I ask Shrika.
“Pink and purple!”
“How about when you play chess?”
“What’s your favorite piece?”
“The queen! She can go wherever she wants. She can take the bishop.”
I ask Tanish about his other chess experiences.
“I play at school and at a club. I go to Triangle Chess. That's a class. And I play with others. I play at home with my dad. He’s easy to play so I play with him a lot.” Then Tanish’s eyes light up. “And also, I play this new game called bughouse!”
“What are your future plans for chess?”
Tanish: “I want to do chess and be a grandmaster and play chess with other people.”
Shrika: “I want to be the best in the world.”
“I believe it! Who's your favorite grandmaster?”
Tanish, after a pause: “Magnus Carlsen."
"My brother, who is like a superhero, was in the NFL. He would beat me at everything. He beat me at basketball, yes, even basketball. The guy could jump, dunk the ball backwards standing straight, run a four or five 40 [yard dash]. At the time he was probably 260 pounds, bench pressing 500 pounds. He was an incredible athlete, and he tells me that he's playing chess with the football players on the Cleveland Browns. He's really gung-ho about this: “You got to play this game, man. This game is awesome. It’s just like football, you know, the quarterback is [the] king.” I’m in college at the time, doing [an] education major. And I said, “Okay, I'll try it, I’ll give this game a try.” I taught myself how to play on this old Packard Bell computer that had maybe 256 megabytes of memory total, but could somehow play chess. I learned how to play the Ruy Lopez on it. To this day, it might be the only opening I know well, the Ruy Lopez from a 1994 Circuit City computer. That's how I got into chess. And I just fell in love with it after that. So, my brother and I started playing back and forth. I remember thinking, “I know I can beat this guy. I gotta beat him at something.” I got a book, Samurai Chess by Michael Gelb, which was about chess and martial arts with some strategic games. I read that book and I beat my brother nine games straight, but he somehow won the 10th game. I think it was 1996, because we had been playing for a couple of years. He never played me after that, ever again, to this day.
I think I'm around 1700 now, but my claim to fame is when I won a big tournament we have in my hometown called the Turkey Bowl. Once I won that, I was, like, “I’m the man!” It was so hard to win it — it was, like, my fourth try. I won a trophy and around $500. Everybody in the club was beating me bad before that. But then I got so much better from doing my puzzles and reading and stuff like that. And I won, finally. It was the under 1600 section, but to me it was like the championship of the world. My family bought me a cake and we celebrated. I took two days off work. I cried. I look back on it and it was so stupid and so dumb. But it’s also when I finally felt I was good enough.
After college I started teaching and the kids are coming into my classroom because they want candy. But one day I don't have any candy, so I say, “You know what, I'll teach you guys chess instead.” They begin learning chess and, you know what, these kids start doing better, having a better attitude. I started seeing the power of the game, how it could help these kids. And so I researched the game. At that time, I had [been using] my one little board until I wrote US Chess and they sent me five chessboards back in 1997 or 1998. Those are the five chessboards that I used for many, many years to teach our kids and take them to the local tournaments to play.
Around that time, I was looking for this man that I heard taught chess to kids in the library. I thought, “This guy, this old dude in El Camino, when I find this guy, he’s going to teach me all the secrets of chess. I’m going to learn everything from this guy.” I finally catch up to him after many weeks of trying. We play about 14 moves and it’s checkmate. But he's not checkmating me; I'm checkmating him. So, we play again, you know, same thing. This time I checkmate him even faster. Then the third game, same thing. I thought, “This guy can't play. This guy’s no good. Terrible.” But today when I think about this guy, tears come to my eyes. I realized what is interesting and profound about this story is that this guy had these little Black kids around him and he was teaching them how to play chess. He was really teaching them. He was out there doing it. But I was not at the time. I was too afraid that I wasn’t good enough to teach. But this guy showed me all you had to do was to believe and have some passion. I had a Last Dragon kind of moment — that’s my favorite movie — where I said, “I'm going to be my own master. I came here looking for someone to change the world, but I have to go out there and make things happen. I’m going to start my chess club, and I'm going to teach kids, and I'm going to do the best I can.”
And before you know it, I'm teaching chess. I'm teaching the whole school. I'm teaching chess to anyone that I can. I'm like the Johnny Appleseed of chess, trying to spread chess to everyone. At this time, I was teaching at a D elementary school — in Florida they rate their schools — maybe in 2012 or 2013. I'm teaching some little boys. These kids are really rambunctious, heavily challenged behaviorally. I'm trying to calm them down, give them something to be inspired by. One day, I’m teaching this little kid chess and the principal comes in, but she’s not supportive at all. I explain that he is very interested in learning chess and I’m organizing a club. I couldn’t convince her, she told me we didn’t have time for chess, but I just kept doing it anyway.
Now the interesting part is that the very next year I took a team of girls to the All-Girls chess tournament. It was insane. I didn’t have any money, nothing. I just thought, “Somehow we're going to find the money and we're going to go to this Chicago tournament.” These girls from the school were strong chess players, but I wasn’t prepared for what we would accomplish together. We figure it out, get everything arranged, we go there — and we get second in the country. It was a big deal, especially coming out of this Title I school. Our test scores were terrible, but this was something promising. The superintendent called my principal and asked for my number and — and that was so great. Then the city, my city, gave me a proclamation because of that tournament. And I got voted teacher of the year. But the most rewarding part was being able to prove [my principal] wrong.
Shortly after that, I found myself talking to John Galvin from I.S. 318 and I went to the screening of his movie, Brooklyn Castle. One of the producers of the movie was there, along with the mayor of that particular city — not my city — and they had heard my story. We were all talking when the producer asked me to be a part of his chess program. So that's how I ended up working with the National Scholastic Chess Foundation and Sunil Weeramantry.
I think chess is a great solution for a lot of the struggles we have with kids, in the inner city especially. Thinking — thinking their way out of situations, you know what I mean? Because with chess you must make good decisions. If you make a bad decision, that's on you. If you had made a better decision, your situation would have turned out differently. And you can tell a kid that, but he's not always going to get it. However, he's going to understand if he's playing chess and he figures it out on his own. That heuristic experience of chess is what is so powerful. These kids can sit there, and they can play chess, and you can see them transforming. I had this kid who is the perfect example. I had a little reward program for the kids at my club. Every time they leveled up on the chess application we used, I would give them a dollar snack from the school store: a honey bun, bag of chips, stuff like that. I was using it to encourage them. When I first started teaching this kid how to play, he would struggle a lot. He’d curse, mistreat the other kids, and just generally misbehave, but I kept encouraging him to play. This kid got to level five and came for a snack. Then, level six, he came for his snack. Level seven, came for his snack. All of a sudden he goes up two levels on his own and gets to level nine. I find him in the classroom and say, “Hey man, wow, I see you went up two levels.” I'm excited for him. I'm happy for him. I ask him what reward he wants. He responds, “I don't want anything, I just want to be great at chess.” I’m blown away. “Damn, that's deep.” But that’s what chess does for these kids. That boy’s statement was one of the most profound things I’ve heard. That's what I'm after. That's what I'm trying to get them to understand — when you’re working toward something great, it can be transformative and then you can transfer that greatness into something else. And that is my goal. To somehow connect kids to that and help them be great at something, anything. That’s what I’ve got, that’s what I’m giving. If I were an artist, maybe I’d be teaching kids to draw, but this is my artistry. This, teaching chess.
Chess brings me so much joy. The environment, the whole thing. Where I came from and not believing I was good enough, to being here — being around some of these guys, you know what I mean? I didn’t meet my first grandmaster until I was in my 30s when I actually got to play a grandmaster. And now I see these guys all the time. It's amazing. How did I get here? To this day, I don't know how I got here. Now I’m the scholastic rep. And I look around and see all these great chess players and these great chess people and I'm humbled by being here. I appreciate it. I do. But I guess it all started because I believe in this game. I really do. I mean, I'm not the best player. I'm not the smartest person. But nobody loves chess as much as me. It is the only thing I can say I'm a grandmaster at. I'm a grandmaster of loving chess." - Robert McKenzie
"I’m 14 and I’ve been playing chess for five to six years. I practice online, on Chess.com, mostly by myself. Though I don’t take part in my local chess community much, I really like the competitiveness of chess. This isn’t my first tournament. I played my first tournament in 2016 and was in the K-3 section. I came in close to last place out of maybe 30 people. I cried a lot. But a month later, at my next tournament, I did a lot better after studying more. I was still playing in the K-3 section, but I tied for second. I recently played in the eighth-grade section at the K-12 Grades National. I scored 5½ out of 7, one point behind the winner. I was really happy about that." - Ishnoor Singh Chandi
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