From left: Daveyon Jones, Demarcos Pinckney, Jahani Hester, Fred McRoy and Carlos McGill participate in the BeEmpowered Chess Tournament at Second Street Baptist Church in northwest D.C. on Aug. 6. (Courtesy photo)
From left: Daveyon Jones, Demarcos Pinckney, Jahani Hester, Fred McRoy and Carlos McGill participate in the BeEmpowered Chess Tournament at Second Street Baptist Church in northwest D.C. on Aug. 6. (Courtesy photo)

The U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) will soon host its annual K-12 grade championship at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, located in a majority-Black county and miles away from what used to be called Chocolate City.  

For years, local chess instructors and players have raised concerns about the lack of USCF-rated matches in the District, Prince George’s County and inner-city communities across the U.S. They said Black youth have been kept out of a sport that encourages strategic thinking and mental aptitude while imparting lessons of patience, foresight and caution.

That’s why, in anticipation of the USCF national K-12 grade championship, high school student and newly-minted USCF affiliate Miles Kwasi Davis has set out to organize USCF-sanctioned chess tournaments for Black youth in the D.C. metropolitan area.  

“There definitely could be more young Black people in Prince George’s County [playing chess] but they were never introduced to it,” said Miles, founder and CEO of the BeEmpowered clothing brand through which he became a USCF affiliate earlier this year. 

Miles has played chess and participated in local tournaments since the age of five. In recent years, he’s endeavored to make an impact in a different way. During the earlier part of August, 32 elementary, middle and high school students participated in the first BeEmpowered Chess Tournament which Miles hosted at Second Street Baptist Church in Northwest. 

After six hours, four young people clinched championships based on their age group. Within a few weeks, youth chess players will have another chance to increase their ranking during another BeEmpowered Chess Tournament in College Park, Maryland. 

“A lot of young people have the skill and focus to understand the game,” said Miles, a 14-year-old sophomore at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Maryland. 

“It’s about strategies that can help them maneuver [the world] every day,” he said. “People in my age group think it’s difficult but it varies based on the skills level. If they understand how the pieces move and the strategies, it would make more sense.” 

A Closer Look at the Institutional Hurdles

Membership in the USCF for youth below the age of 18 costs $20 and has to be renewed annually.  Members often compete in tournaments in their area and establish ranking after 25 matches or seven tournaments, whichever comes first. In many chess tournaments, computers determine pairings by rankings and rankings affect the types of tournaments available to chess players. 

The more competitive tournaments, characterized as intense, quiet and timed, come with a cash prize amounting to thousands of dollars. USCF awards the national chess master title to a player whose rating surpasses 2,200. Original life masters achieve this feat with 300 games under their belt while chess grandmasters and international masters represent the highest ranking one can achieve at the national and international levels, respectively. 

However, any exposure to these types of opportunities requires participation in tournaments hosted by a USCF affiliate. In the late 1990s, Maurice Ashley became the first Black chess grandmaster in the world. To this day, he is one of a dozen Black chess grandmasters across the globe to come from the U.S.  

Vaughn Bennett, a former D.C. firefighter and chess instructor of more than a decade, said by not ever hosting any chess tournaments in Prince George’s County for several years, the Maryland Chess Federation has systematically kept young Blacks out of the sport. 

Bennett, Miles’ chess instructor during middle school, encouraged Miles to gain affiliate status and fill a void in the D.C. metropolitan area. Before then, Bennett hosted free, USCF-sanctioned tournaments in the District and Maryland for decades. 

On August 27, the USCF told Bennett he has 30 days to change the name of his three-year-old affiliate, DC State Chess Federation, as it had been deemed similar to the DC Chess League, an 82-year old organization with mostly-white leadership that coordinates matches in the D.C. metropolitan area throughout the year.  

Bennett said this situation highlights ongoing efforts to keep Black youth out of chess. 

“Miles is the first Black child to ever organize and direct a USCF-sanctioned tournament in the D.C. metropolitan area,” Bennett said. “I can say that has [never] happened here or across the country.” 

“We have to consider that Blacks didn’t have access to chess until the 1960s,” he continued. “They’re bringing one of the biggest tournaments in the country to Prince George’s County but there haven’t been any tournaments there. That’s not by coincidence,” he said.  

An Up-and-Coming Chess Player Speaks 

After participating in the BeEmpowered Chess Tournament at Second Street Baptist Church in early August, Demarcos Pinckney said he has visions of sharpening his skills and increasing his ranking. To do so, he often goes toe-to-toe with friends and online competitors. 

Demarcos, a 14-year-old youth who attends Digital Pioneers Academy in Southeast, learned to play chess in the months preceding the pandemic as a member of The Creative School, a program that equips young people to capture their peers’ stories and design solutions to problems facing their communities.

He said chess taught him to think more clearly and plan his life. 

While he commended Miles’ efforts to bring more young people into the game, Demarcos had some suggestions about how to ensure that all participants get better and involve their peers who might lack the confidence to give chess a try. 

“At the end of a game, give them a chess board,” Demarcos said as he reflected on chess’ impact on his life. “This is a game that calms me down and makes me think. You have to think before you make your move.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed reading this article about our youth. I hope more children are encouraged to join and learn how to play chess.

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