The second and third graders tore into the classroom at Harlem Success Academy 2 like a tornado of little arms and legs. A cacophony of giggles and squeals preceded them.
Minutes later these little dervishes of energy were studious and silent, but for the click of chess pieces and the clack of the timers they popped after each move.
The tension was thick. The players were focused. The inaugural chess tournament of the Harlem Success Academy scholars was underway, and the competition was on.
"The thing I like about chess is having hard enemies, to see if I'm good or not," said Abudurazaq Aribidesi, 8, a third grader at the school, after winning his second match of the day. The young player, who has bounced between being the top ranked and third ranked player in the entire school, could barely tamp down his pride as he nudged his glasses up on his nose.
"I feel really good," Abudurazaq said (pictured below right), strolling confidently out of the classroom.
Held at Harlem Success Academy's East 128th Street location in Harlem, the tournament was the first of its kind for the network of charter schools. But it is also part of a citywide surge in organized chess in public and charter schools in some of the city's toughest neighborhoods, where schools, as cliché as it might sound, are using the game of chess to teach its students discipline and focus, traits best served in the game of life.
New York City has boasted an impressive pool of young talent that has garnered national attention, including Justus Williams of the Bronx, who at 12 became the youngest ever African American chess master last year. Another New Yorker, Kassa Korley, 16, also African American, held the distinction before Williams and has been named "the Lebron James of chess."
There is also the Chess-in-the-Schools program that was founded in 1986 to teach chess to public school children in the city's poor neighborhoods, a program that has given rise to hundreds if not thousands of chess enthusiasts throughout the city, including Linda Ragin, now a chess instructor at Harlem Success Academy 1.
Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of the Success Charter Network, which launched the first of its seven schools in Harlem in 2006, said that each of her schools' 2,400 students takes chess as a required course.
"I think chess is as important as reading and mathematics, it develops sequential and strategic thinking that is as powerful as any academic subject," said Moskowitz. "I want kids to enjoy the game and cultivate there strategic thinking skills, but I also think chess competitions are really good for kids. You learn how to be a gracious winner and a humbler loser. You learn sportsmanship, you learn skills that you need in life to best successful in life."
Sean O'Hanlon, the chess instructor at Harlem Success Academy 2 and the organizer of the tournament, said that chess "makes kids feel good about themselves and about going to school."
O'Hanlon teaches 19 chess classes a week and meets with the official chess club each morning at 7:15 a.m., before classes begin and while other students are in the cafeteria eating breakfasts, and on Wednesday's after school. His team is committed, he said. "They have a lot to do, so chess is not always their priority, but they love it."
So do their parents, according to O'Hanlon, who says many parents have told him that they enjoy seeing their kids sitting quietly and using their minds rather than playing video games.
Henry Pena, the father of Sean, a 3rd grader who was playing in the tournament for Harlem Success Academy 3, said that chess has given his energetic boy a focus.
"I feel proud," said Pena. "When I was growing up I don't remember any kids playing chess. It's fine, as long as he doesn't keep beating me."
Back at the tournament, O'Hanlon stood in the center of the class. His team from Harlem Success Academy 2 had just swept the first two rounds, challenging students from three of their sister schools. They were headed into the final round of competition, and O'Hanlon took a good look at his students, nearly a dozen of them.
"Remember. Do not take this game for granted just because you won the last game," he said to the group. "You win graciously and you lose graciously. Got it?" He then looked over to another instructor and nodded.
"We're ready," he said.
"Check mate," a student said just above a whisper, tossing his hand into the air. One by one players began to fall off.
Then, another whispered checkmate and another hand went up. But on the other side of the board, a sullen faced Bennett Boakge, 9, (pictured above right) lowered his head a bit. Bennett is the number one ranked player at Harlem Success Academy 2, and had defeated two other players that day. But this time his opponent got the best of him.
"He captured a lot of my pieces," the boy said. "He surprised me." Despite the loss, his team was one win away from winning the tournament and capturing the big gold trophy with a King's head propped on top of it. And for having lost his final match, Bennett had a relatively good attitude.
"I felt like I was going to win," he said. "It's still fun because you face so many opponents and learn to think about what you're going to do. When I first started I would just do anything, move anywhere and not pay attention. Now I know what move I'm going to make before I make it."
A few minutes later the last player for Bennett's team won his match, and the big gold trophy stayed with the home team.
Checkmate: Harlem Youngsters Stepping Up Their Chess Game
Wed, 01 Jun 2011 20:05:00 GMT