On a late Saturday morning in the courtyard of National Teachers Academy in Chinatown, more than 100 kids, family members, and coaches were participating in one of the only free, rated chess tournaments for youths in Chicago. It was organized by Shawn Sorsby of A Step Ahead Chess and the Chicago Chess Foundation. Most of the participants were between the ages of five and 14.
Rated tournaments provide participants with a chess rating—an estimate of their playing strength based on prior results through the United States Chess Federation ranging from 100 to 3000. “Grandmaster” is the highest title one can attain in chess if their rating surpasses 2200.
At most rated tournaments, players are predominantly white and Asian boys. But the chess players in the courtyard that morning were mostly Black, Latinx, and Asian, with a considerable number of girls participating.
Kids were paired up over chess boards arrayed across 20 benches in the courtyard. They stared at the boards with more concentration than their ages might suggest; many of the players were five, six, or seven years old. But the tension would break occasionally as their playfulness jumped out.
Jaden Walker, nine, stood intently, his brow furrowed and his hands in his Adidas pockets. He closed his eyes and threw his head back in a quiet gesture of frustration while he waited for his similarly aged opponent, also a Black boy, to finish his turn. On the chess board between them, pawns and knights were developing attacks and counterattacks. It was the two boys’ third and final match for the day.
Jaden was crowned Minnesota State Champion in chess this May, and he’s participated in A Step Ahead Chess online from his Minnesota home since the start of the pandemic.
Nine-year-old Jaden Walker stands while considering the board. CREDIT Shawn Sorsby
Heather, Jaden’s mom, says she has no idea how to play chess, so the kids all impress her. And the experience has had a huge impact on her son. Chess has helped him “focus and have goals,” and the competition portion is fun, but also teaches him how respond to the pressures of winning and losing.
Jaden won his first and last game at the Chinatown-based chess open, but lost the one in the middle when he was competing against a high school student twice his size, which Sorsby said intimidated him. But you wouldn’t have known it, seeing him wield a trophy he was awarded at the end of the day.
Jaden said he likes chess because he gets to use his mind, and because he has a lot of friends online now. “I [had to] learn what the pieces meant, what they do . . . Like what I do in my daily life is like math . . . math is always in chess. I have to figure out what the pieces do, where they move, how they move. I have to look at the board and see, what can I do? What do I want to do?”
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