You, Two Rooks, and a Tight Hip-Hop Hook

Eight year-old Bum Rush the Boards 2012 participant practicing with father before start of the tournament (April 21, 2012)

Imagine you’re the lead character in a movie about an African-American high school student from DC’s Ward 8 or the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, NY with a talent and winning streak for chess – a game that is purported to have origins dating back to 600 A.D.

Your residential surroundings might not be ideal, but your parents and teachers recognize your desire to live a less than ordinary life and overwhelmingly give their support and time to help you walk this path. Your character – the quintessential protagonist – has one best friend who also shares your dream, another who serves as relentless roadblock, and a love interest whose commitment to you has started to waiver.

What would you want the soundtrack of this movie to sound like?

If none of these suit your tastes, try looking to hip-hop culture for some inspiration. About two weekends ago I did exactly that.

I had already decided to attend and write about the Word, Beats & Life Seventh Annual Bum Rush the Boards event before my interest was heightened further after reading a recent New York Times piece about the rise of successful young chess champions in urban environments.

Like one of the students in the New York Times story,  I’m a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, but chess was not an activity that was ever presented to me in my adolescence. And although I grew up during the meteoric rise of The Wu-Tang Clan, a popular hip hop ensemble obsessed with mastery of chess, my days and nights were sadly limited to spades, Scrabble, and Nintendo.

Luckily for the young participants I met that Saturday in late April, Words, Beats & Life, Inc. realized almost a decade ago that chess can offer significant benefits to players who master its intricacies, including enhancing memory performance; building self confidence and discipline; increasing concentration; improving communication and independence skills; and developing critical thinking skills.

Couple this long list of pros with hip-hop music – an art form that when done right can be an amazing and genuine expression of artistry and imagination – and you get Bum Rush the Boards. Started in 2005, Bum Rush the Boards is billed as a civic event convened to “promote strategic thought and actions within the hip-hop and chess communities.”

With great partners like Chess Challenge in DC – and DC’s DJ RBI providing a backdrop of songs from artists like CommonJay ElectronicaA Tribe Called Quest and Outkast – over 100 students from various DC metro area elementary, middle and high schools were given an outlet to showcase their love of chess with a full-day tournament.

As round one of the tourney’s four kicked off, most parents watched intently from the stands, but a few parental units with kids as young as six decided to unwisely join the tournament monitors on the playing floor. They were kindly and respectfully guided back to the stands by round two. Five hours passed with a lunch break, and a few workshops on DJ mixing and abstract art in between play. The winning chess teams were from Ballou Senior High School and the Ceasar Chavez Public Charter Schools, and in the end, dozens of students got an opportunity to display their talent for the game and enjoy time with others in an environment that fed their creativity through a continuous stream of hip-hop music and art.

Here’s a link to the event photos I captured and details on what I learned:

  • There’s no reason anyone should be without a basic understanding of chess – It’s always good to try a new activity that will challenge and stimulate your mind. While I was there, a former chess coach took pity on my novice understanding of the game and gave me a mini lesson. And without taking notes, I discovered the game is not too difficult to pick up and actually quite fun. Sixty-four squares, a few knights and rooks, eight pawns to guard your most important pieces, a diagonal move here and there. Got it.
  • Chess play does not need to occur in so-called traditional environments – Mentions of chess can evoke stereotypical images of tweed jackets, bow ties, boarding schools and perhaps, even solemn old men with long white beards congregating in New York’s Central Park. Groups like Words, Beats and Life have proven that chess is not a one-dimensional activity and can be coupled with other cultural elements like hip hop music and art in an effort to enhance strategic and creative thought.
  • Organizations like Chess in the Schools and Chess Challenge in DC are doing what successful enrichment programs do best – Whether it’s focused on polo, tennis, golf or advanced spelling, after-school programs that teach children a new skill while also getting them to think strategically; develop self-discipline and positive social skills; and increase their self-esteem, are a great resource for schools which lack immediate access to such programming, and they deserve our support. I plan to help sponsor a Chess Challenge in DC school.
  • Mastering chess is another pathway to a life in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) – A large number of the chess coaches I met at the Bum Rush the Boards tournament were math or science teachers at their respective schools. And while no singular extracurricular activity can compensate for years of hard academic work, a specialized curriculum and dedicated adult supervision, I assume for these chess coaches, learning the game as a child served as a significant catalyst towards their interest and eventual success in STEM studies and careers.

If chess is an activity you know well and love, you can make a huge impact in the life of a child by sharing your knowledge with them. If you’re a novice to the game, try to take your skills up a notch. The benefits are endless. Mix in a little hip hop music with your play and you might find a creative spark you never knew existed.

Still don’t believe me? Read what this guy has to say. Chess and hip hop are his specialties.