Hunched over a chessboard, a poker-faced 10-year-old mocks his adult challenger. "Bring your king," says Solomon Hayes, blowing a giant bubble with his gum. "Bring it on." One move later, the match is over. "Checkmate!" he says. His vanquished opponent, teacher Courtney Welsh, throws up her hands. "Well, at least I beat a six-year-old the other day," she sighs.
At the Harlem Chess Center, which opened four months ago, it is common for grownups to get thrashed by pint-size chess prodigies. In the same tough neighborhood, the Dark Knights team at Mott Hall, a middle school for gifted students, last year won the national championship in the prestigious U.S. Chess Federation tournament. The victory was especially sweet because the Dark Knights didn't have the private chess tutors used by many of their opponents and couldn't afford to compete in as many practice tournaments. Their win "sent a message to the community about achievement," says team booster Welsh. "It also sent a message to the kids the Harlem kids beat."
Welsh runs the nonprofit Harlem Educational Activities Fund, which bankrolls the chess programs at Mott Hall and the Harlem Chess Center (with donations from, among others, a charitable arm of Time Warner, parent company of this magazine). Much of the credit for Harlem's love affair with chess goes to Maurice Ashley, 33, a grand master and the highest-ranked black player in history. Ashley, who established Mott's chess program a decade ago, saw the game as a way to foster academic achievement and self-esteem. "I call chess intellectual karate," he says. "It's about setting a concrete goal and figuring out how you're going to carry it out." Chess improves problem solving, strategic thinking and concentration. It teaches impatient kids the value of hard work and delayed gratification. Says Ashley: "There are all these correlations between chess and life."
Studies in New York City show that kids who play chess perform better in reading on national standardized tests. The gains are especially impressive in students who initially lagged behind their classmates. Schools across the U.S. are incorporating the game into their curriculums. Chess-in-the-Schools, the largest program, teaches the game to more than 36,000 students in 160 schools in New York City. Meanwhile, the U.S. Chess Federation, the governing body for all tournament play, has 42,000 junior members--an elevenfold increase since 1989. "Years back, people who played chess were considered nerdy," says Barbara DeMaro, a spokeswoman for the federation. "But now chess is cool." Says Brian Hawkins, director of the Harlem Chess Center: "Once more people started playing, it became more acceptable."
That's an understatement at Mott Hall, where shining chess trophies adorn the hallways. Here, kids turn out to cheer at chess tournaments just as they would for sports teams at other schools. "The kids are like chess vampires," says Jerald Times, Mott's chess director. "They can't get enough." All 410 students at Mott play chess. It is a required course, just like math and English, for kids in Grades 4 through 6. By seventh grade, chess is offered after school only. At a time when the lure of gang life is strong, chess gives kids a chance to test their mettle in a safe environment. Says Times: "It gives brilliant, tough kids a creative outlet."