Chalk this one up to having my head in the sand. But how exactly did I miss this? I mean, I love chess (I played competitively when I was a kid), I live in New York, and I be Black (one of the two things I supposedly have to do…along with dying).
Regardless, I am extremely proud to have stumbled upon this article (a month-plus late) about three chess masters, all of whom are Black, all of whom are from the New York City area, and all of whom are…under 14(?!?!?!).
To put this in perspective, the New York Times reports that:
Fewer than 2 percent of the 77,000 members of the United States Chess Federation are masters — and just 13 of them are under the age of 14.
The three teenagers, Justus Williams, Joshua Colas, and James Black, Jr., hail from the Bronx, White Plains and Brooklyn respectively. They practice hard, compete around the world, beat men three to four times their age and seek to attain the title of grandmaster by their high school graduation, an extremely rare feat (think only dozens of previous examples in the history of chess). And they appear to understand the significance of what they are accomplishing for their community:
“I think of Justus, me and Josh as pioneers for African-American kids who want to take up chess,” James Black, Jr. said.
James’s father, James Black, said he and Justus’s and Joshua’s parents were aware of what their sons represent and “talk about it a great deal,” but tried not to pressure them too much.
To ask teenagers to carry a torch for the community is a little much. But I am glad to see that there are three of them, as that will likely mitigate some of the pressure of playing the Neo role of being “The one.” Hopefully, at the very least, as James says, their success can illuminate how great chess is and attract more African-Americans, and specifically, more African-American children to play. I can tell you firsthand that my experience playing chess had a tremendous impact on me growing up. Not only did I learn to use my mind in interesting, creative and anticipatory ways, but with each success, my self-esteem increased as I successfully competed against peers and adults alike and gained respect for my mental capabilities.
They say that Bobby Fischer’s rise to stardom led to a dramatic rise in the amount of chess played in the United States. Before Fischer, chess was largely dominated by Russian Grandmasters. It goes without saying that I hope that these three prodigies avoid the fate of Bobby Fischer (for more details on the bizarre tragedy that was Bobby Fischer’s life, there is a great documentary called Bobby Fischer Against The World). However, if they can have any semblance of the impact that he did, I can only think that would be a great thing.