mauriceashleywithraiderrooks002.jpgFrom Civil War era chess wiz Theophilus Thompson, to Brooklyn-born and raised Maurice Ashley, the first black International Grandmaster of Chess, black people have had a little-known, but longstanding love affair with the mind-bending board game.

Increasingly, chess is being introduced to inner-city youth, many of whom possess the critical thinking and analytical skills to master the game.

The Rooks of Edison Park Elementary have joined the ranks of chess champions across the nation – proving that exposure to a world bigger than their neighborhood, an enthusiastic coach and a diverse coalition of support can lead to excellence.

Coached by art teacher Webber Charles, the Rooks tied for the top prize at the

Burt Lerner National Elementary (K-6) Championship in Pittsburgh, a competition that is considered the top national event for students from kindergarten to high school.

The team shared its first-place finish at the May 9-11 competition with a private Philadelphia school in the K-6 category for schools with fewer than 1,000 students.

More than 250 players from 42 schools around the country competed.

As a result of this year’s success, (the Rooks also won the district and state titles) the team was able to meet Ashley at Edison Middle school recently.

“We use his software in the school,” Charles said. Ashley signed the team’s chess boards and posed for photos with them.

Yecenia Martinez, principal for six months at the predominantly  Haitian-American school, said she was “ecstatic,” when she heard the news.

“We’re an inner-city school and there’s a misconception that [the students] won’t do well.  They have district, state and national level… trophies that are bigger than us,” Martinez said proudly.

Charles is also keenly aware of the misconceptions about inner-city schools, and said chess helps to dispel them.

“These kids sat across from white kids and Asian kids from the best schools in the country, and were able to outthink them,” the art teacher-turned award-winning chess coach said.

Using books and computer software, Charles said, it took him a little over three months to learn the game well enough to teach others.

“But with chess, you never stop learning,” he told the South Florida Times.

The 28-year old bachelor said his social life is virtually non-existent, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I don’t go out on the weekends,” he said, because chess is such a big part of his life.

Initially, convincing him to coach the team was a tough sell. When the principal approached him with the idea, Charles questioned whether playing chess was the best use of the students’ time.

“We got a lot of other issues we need to worry about like grades and FCAT,” he argued at first. “What I didn’t know was that chess helps with all of that.”
His students are the proof.

Denaric Mikle has been playing for one year, and on a scale of 1 (poorest) to 10 (masterful), considers himself an eight. Mikle is smitten with chess, he said, because it requires “thinking and outsmarting your opponent. It has made me become better in math and better in class. My future is to become a grandmaster.”

Charles said girls dominate the team’s composition – with a ratio of 53 percent to 47 percent, and that the Edison Park team that prevailed at the state championship was 75 percent female.

Toni Anthony, 8, is a first-year player who took second place in the state competition.

“Not only is it a game of knowledge, it’s a game of thinking too,’’ she said. “I’ve been making straight As lately.”

Edison Park is one of 39 historically low performing schools in the district’s School Improvement Zone. Schools in the ‘Zone’ have longer school days, a longer school year and teachers who are paid a higher salary to teach there.

The school’s chess students have learned lessons that extend far beyond the chess board. Charles said his students are now able to think of a world beyond their poverty-stricken neighborhood.

“They’ve been to Orlando, Tampa and Pittsburgh in one month. We raised $10,000 in two months. We’ve been able to build relationships with the Dolphins, the Steadman Foundation, the North Miami Rotary Club, the Opa-locka Rotary Club,” he said.

The students have also learned “to think outside of the box,” and the value of persistence, Charles explained.

“We had our opposition early on,” he said, adding that some of their opponents “treated our students very unfairly, very disrespectfully.”

Charles said the team more than earned their opponents’ respect. 

“When you have predominantly Hispanic schools standing behind us and cheering us on at nationals, wanting to take pictures with us, we sent a very, very clear message. These kids can learn,” the second generation Haitian American said.

Charles and his contagious enthusiasm are clearly integral to the team’s success.

“I do whatever I can to change the stigma that inner-city students can’t perform in an academically rigorous environment, because that’s not the truth,” he said.

Tyrone Johnson Jr., sees college in his future. The eight-year old who has been playing chess since he was six, said, “I want to win a scholarship and go to a school that has chess.”
Charles said Miami-Dade’s school district provides a great atmosphere for students to excel at chess.

“Dade County is one of the strongest school districts for chess behind New York and Texas,’’ he said. “We’ve already produced six or seven grand masters. At the rate that some of our top kids are going, they’ll be experts before they get to high school if they continue to play with the same intensity that they play with now.”

Photo courtesy of Edison Park Elementary. Edison Park Elementary students celebrate their victory in the national chess competition with chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley, center. The students in the front row are, from left to right, Cary Canton, Woody Jean-Louis, Milton Canton and Philips Julien. The students in the back row are, from left to right, Jazmine James, Julina Gonzalez and Denaric Mikle.