D.C. chess phenom Zahir Muhammad speaks to a group of students in February before they participate in the Black History Month chess tournament at the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage in northwest D.C. (Courtesy photo)

In August, teen chess phenom Zahir Muhammad will represent the District in the National Tournament of Champions for the second consecutive year.

During four days in Orlando, Florida, he will go toe to toe with more than 50 of his peers from across the country for a chance to compete internationally.

Despite the pressure that comes with being a standout chess player in his community, Zahir said he has risen to the occasion time and time again by remembering life lessons he learned on the board.

He credits what he described as clear thinking for his victory at the DC Scholastic Chess Championship earlier this month.

“Chess sets you apart mentally and emotionally,” said Zahir, 16, as he explained how the mentally stimulating game helps him avoid the pitfalls of adolescence.

“We deal with emotional struggles, but life is about being able to think outside of your emotions and make strong decisions,” he said. “When you see a good move, you think of a better move. You think about the best way to solve problems, especially in terms of being a teenager.”

Zahir, a Southeast resident who attends DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, has won nine chess tournaments in the past three years, including his most recent victory at the 2018 DC Scholastic Chess Tournament.

In September, the D.C. Council recognized Zahir for his local and national success. Shortly after, he competed against 50 other statewide teen chess champions in the National Tournament of Champions.

During his travels throughout the United States and West Indies, Zahir has defeated the best in his age group and older, including Chappell Wyms and and David Sands, vice presidents of the Bahamian Chess Federation.

This summer, Zahir, an ardent chess player since the age of 3, plans to sharpen his skills with the help of instructors at the Castle Chess Exposure Program in Atlanta. He also expressed a desire to increase his Chinese language proficiency at the Beijing Language and Culture University, an endeavor for which he launched a crowdfunding campaign.

Staying true to his mission to set an example for his Black peers, Zahir has volunteered as a chess instructor at several schools, camps, and community centers throughout the D.C. metropolitan area, and trains with the Marion Barry Youth Leadership Institute.

In February, he spoke to a group of students before they participated in a Black History Month chess tournament at the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage in Northwest.

For Robin Ramson, the D.C. scholastic coordinator for the U.S. Chess Federation, Zahir’s seemingly meteoric ascent to masters level provides an example for Black youth in the city of the power of chess in fulfilling academic and professional goals.

Ramson said Zahir fills a very conspicuous void in the local and national chess scene.

“Going back maybe 10 or 15 years, I don’t think anyone could remember a young Black man from Southeast representing D.C.” in a national chess tournament, she said. “The children don’t understand Zahir’s power, because they don’t see chess as a serious opportunity to connect the dots, and put [something different] on your college resume. Zahir has been doing a good job speaking to the power of chess in building up your confidence.”

For more information about how to support Zahir and contribute to his training, email zahirmchess@gmail.com.

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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