Eleven-year-old Jakai Ross stares lamely at the knight on the edge of the chess board. The misguided horse had charged wildly from behind a line of pawns, leaving his king open for attack.
“You know that’s game, right?” says Born Cipha, the burly middle-aged instructor seated across from him. Cipha’s not sure that the kid in a red t-shirt and sweatpants is paying attention. The instructor makes a fast diagonal cross with his agile black queen, and holds the piece in line with Jakai’s crown-topped king. It’s a fool’s mate, a match won in only a handful of moves.
“You’re better than that, Jakai. Think, brother,” Cipha says softly. At S.P.O.R.T. Academy, the after-school chess program in New Haven’s Stetson Branch Library, he has no patience for repeat mistakes. Cipha comes to the Dixwell Avenue building wearing the blue scrubs from his work in material management at Yale-New Haven Hospital. All he asks of families is a one-time fee of $25 to cover equipment costs and some respect for the skills he’s trying to teach.
Cipha started casual Saturday training session, titled Chess 101, with three friends in the summer of 2014. He named the program Street Poets Cipher Real Truth. Today, children as young as six cluster around the rectangular wooden tables set up between the bookshelves, often under the supervision of co-founder and Minister of Information Sean Reeves. In addition, since the beginning of October, students such as Jakai have signed up for a Chess Apprenticeship Program on Monday and Wednesday to learn what the game is all about.
Here, in a historically high-crime, majority black neighborhood, Cipha has rewritten the rules of the game: the black pieces move first instead of the white ones. Race is not central to the program’s objective, but it weaves its way into the founders’ discussions about helping their community. “We’re really touching on principles,” Cipha says, while kids line up their plastic armies for another weekday crusade. “And we do it for free.”
It’s a radical departure from tradition, but Cipha—the self-appointed CEO—has a mission in mind. For him, C.H.E.S.S. stands for C Him Express the Savior in Self. “Chess is the game of life,” he repeats, like a big-hearted preacher. Most of his students are boys, and most are black. Once their hands touch any piece, there’s no going back. They must be patient and stay a few steps ahead of their opponents.
“All right, man, you ready?” Cipha asks, as he prepares his pawns for martyrdom. “I ain’t playin’ around with you.” Jakai’s king topples Cipha’s bishop on the sidelines, and his queen cuts back across the board to slay Cipha’s rook stationed in the back row. Cipha nods approvingly. With a hearty laugh, he adds, “Gotta watch this guy. He’s sneaky.”
The students must pass through seven levels of self-transformation from pawn to king, each of which is listed next to a grandiose S.P.O.R.T. Academy skill set.
There are no awards for students who advance. But the strategy that it takes to win on the board is supposed to carry over to the higher-stakes situations outside the library. “In this game, you gotta create your own destiny,” Cipha declares. But it takes time to earn the crown.
Level 1: Master the board itself; know it in and out
Chess was, at one time, a point of national pride. When American Bobby Fischer dueled Soviet Boris Spassky at the legendary World Chess Championship in 1972, people sat glued to their television sets for hours. Now, the Olympic sport of America’s nerds has fallen under the radar, and the success of the country’s biggest gamers goes unnoticed.
But in recent years, many educators and chess aficionados have started to see the game as the quick fix for America’s kids. Countless websites point to measurable successes: higher reading scores, percentage points on math tests, and improved “emotional intelligence.”
In smaller-scale programs across the country, kids are learning the basics: each chessman can only move in specific patterns. Pawns can usually move only one step forward, while the queens can make straight beelines in any direction. The aim is to trap the opponent’s king, before he corners your own in a checkmate.
I learned chess in New York City as a part of Chess-in-the-Schools, America’s biggest in-school chess program; started in 1986, it currently reaches about 13,000 students in over 50 public schools each year. I still have the bubble-letter guidebooks that tried to convince me the game is cool: “An Introduction to the Secret Tricks That Help You Win.”
Cipha’s program, however, ignores American teachers’ obsession with exam results. He operates with the faith that if you repeat the right lessons, there will be a pay-off down the line. His emphasis on personal responsibility may obscure the fact that kids don’t start life with equal numbers of pieces on their side. But he is not blind to the ways disadvantage works, and the month during which I attend S.P.O.R.T. Academy offers a glimpse of what he strives to accomplish over years.
Level 2: Pawn—Learn moves according to the rules
On slow weekdays, Cipha and two other volunteers are left with only a couple kids; during busier times, five or six show up to play. On Saturdays, the numbers are doubled or even tripled. During breaks, they read books like The Adventures of Captain Underpants, and they still have the dream of becoming famous baseball and basketball players. But when they get in front of the board, a strange focus settles upon them.
Cipha’s gravitas gives S.P.O.R.T. Academy a special kick. “I’m a walking church,” he tells me nonchalantly, and later he speaks of a voice that calls out to students in the wilderness. Though his maxims may seem over-the-top, his arsenal of metaphors convinces kids that the game matters.
For comparison’s sake, he says the program at a school nearby “may be teaching the basic fundamentals. They ain’t teaching this visionary process.”
Most of the kids are not entirely sure of what it means to live by chess terms, though they draw messy parallels when I ask: when you need to buy either silverware or blankets, you need to think ahead, one tells me. Another announces that the king demonstrates a boy’s life, and a queen’s shows a girl’s.
Of course, Cipha says, the children aren’t supposed to get it right off the bat. But at least they’re starting to catch on. At the snack break, I ask Thyesen West, a 12-year-old sporting rows of shiny braces, what he means when he says the game “has life skills in it.” As he munches on some chicken and drinks Capri Sun through a straw, he tells me it’s all about strategy.
Level 3: Bishop—Learn about opposites, how to approach them, and how to create a realm of illusion
In the mid-1800s, chess opponents could select both their preferred piece color and the order of play. Making white go first consistently was intended to make the game fair, since black was considered a lucky color. When Cipha says cheerfully, “The black man is the original man,” he wants students to look at far more than the history of the game. He’s asking his students to reconsider what it means to be black, not only on the chessboard.
The chess tables are lined up between the shelves of “African- American Reference” and “African-American Biography.” But the students don’t discuss race often at the Chess Apprenticeship Program. At times, the topic is unavoidable. “Did God run out of melanin when it was time to give it to other people?” a student once asked Cipha, referring to the pigment that makes skin dark.
Cipha knows that those with a background similar to his own don’t always have a positive vision of their black communities. Many of the S.P.OR.T. Academy kids come from parts of New Haven that are more affluent than Dixwell. Still, “when I say, ‘street poet.’ I’m talking to that kid in the hood,” Cipha says, gesturing at S.P.O.R.T. Academy’s name.
Growing up in Dixwell, Cipha lifted weights and shot pool at the Q House, the now-defunct community center down the street, and he even dropped by the library. But he also recounts how ubiquitous drug-dealing and police sirens were when he was a teen. These are the stereotypes of America’s inner-city communities that Cipha wants kids to set aside. “The ghetto is here,” he says, pointing a finger at his head. “It don’t have an address.”
Cipha’s faith in the significance of the black community helps kids rebuild their sense of personal authority. The instructor follows the tenets of the Nation of Gods and Earths, an organization that teaches that the black man is the father of civilization, and that he can be the embodiment of God. He sees himself as one of the Five Percenters, those who understand the reality of who God is and are willing to teach others. When he speaks of seven levels of chess, he knows that seven is the number of godliness and perfection; the numeral stands on top of the sun, moon, and star at the center of the Five Percenters’ flag.
The CEO’s own name is a testament to sweeping change; he abandoned the name Edward Trimble in the 90s, after a prison mate taught him both the rules of chess and the tenets of the Nation of Gods and Earths. Though bosses at work still call him “Eddie,” everyone else sticks with his new title. It calls attention to the all-encompassing Five Percenter system of Supreme Mathematics. A cipher, or the numeral zero, consists of 120 degrees of knowledge, 120 degrees of wisdom, and 120 degrees of understanding—the traits he expects the kids to value.
But what he actually tells me about how his whole mindset shift began is, “Reality sent me the [NGE] flag in the mail,” referring to a friend who goes by Almighty Reality. It’s as though one’s better self is waiting just around the corner, if only the postman sends you a sign.
Level 4: Knight—Square yourself off, become rooted, and learn how to make the right choices
At the print shop of Sean Reeves, one of the S.P.O.R.T. Academy co-founders, the wall is lined with portraits: Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, and Madame C. J. Walker, the U.S.’s first female African- American millionaire. He shares the business space located a few blocks from the library with Cuzin Twiz, another one of S.P.O.R.T. Academy’s founding members. Friends wave from the window, where there are posters for Twiz’s TV show and a poster for the chess program.
The window display also includes a black-and-white sign that says, “Never Forget Our Black Holocaust,” and a horrific 1712 letter from an overseer named Willie Lynch who thought he could quell all future unrest through fear tactics. “I caught the whiff of a dead slave hanging from a tree, a couple miles back,” reads the text of the yellowed blown-up document.
Reeves sees himself fighting against an image of blackness leftover from the time of abolition. “If you feel that you are bigger than a slave, but the only thing the world has told you your whole life is that this is where you come from, then at the end of the day, you can set your sights high, but to walk out this door and deal with all of that poverty—it’s pretty much like we’re in the same place we were in all those years ago,” he tells me. “I’m better than picking cotton and being whipped.”
On Dixwell Avenue, which decades ago was a flourishing model of black entrepreneurship, most of the small stores have been neglected or turned over to non-black owners, according to Reeves. His own store is an attempt to revitalize his community, in a way that also offers kids a sense of the right way to build up their communities. “My business card product is the same as their cocaine product. My brochure product is the same as their heroin product,” he says, as he’s not just speaking in theoretical terms; he served about a decade in prison for drug sales and weapon possession, before he started his business.
But Reeves’s story is a confirmation of how things go wrong, even if you plan five moves ahead. In 2011, long after he had turned into an entrepreneurial family man, a stray bullet killed his 16-year-old son during a street fight. Now, he sees himself caring for a community, one that was affected by a sudden death. The church was full on the day of the funeral, he tells me.
Level 5: Rook—Demonstrate your understanding and power against your opponent
Reeves surveys the library chess games with a Bluetooth on his ear and an iPad under his arm. “Young man, can I depend on you?” he says to eight-year-old Jaylen Hunter when his newbie opponent makes a wrong move. As the patient teacher who leads the Saturday sessions, he shows one team how to protect the king early in a match. “What’s his name?” he asks Jaylen, as he points to his most important chess piece. “King,” the student replies, but Reeves wants more. “King who?” he asks. “King Jaylen,” the boy replies.
Reeves tells me that S.P.O.R.T. Academy is there to offer children role models. His own daughter, a student at West Rock Academy, has no black teachers. And the lessons she learns about her own heritage will start with Harriet Tubman, introducing her to the legacy of slavery.
Like Cipha, Reeves feels the need to outline the right moves for kids. When his daughter gets sent home from school after a scuffle with another kid or a reprimand from the teacher, Reeves plays chess with her to talk about it. “That was a bad move, right?” he asks, gesturing at a particular piece. “You did the bad move at school, and what happened today? This got taken from you.” He equates lost pieces with lost recess, hoping that the more manageable rules of the game will remind his daughter to calculate before she acts. “Every day,” he tells her, “think about chess.”
Even when teacher and student alike are absorbed in a match, part of his job is to ease kids into the real world while keeping the more troubling elements at bay. When a drunk woman starts yelling at the back of the library on a Saturday, telling her partner, “I don’t want to deal with niggers like you,” it is Reeves who gets up from the table to quiet her down. He speaks to her calmly, hands raised in a quieting gesture, before she leaves the building. “We’ve got kids here,” Reeves says, when he sits back down at the board. Later he adds, “There are children I need to keep safe here.”
Level 6: Queen—Demonstrate infinite potential as a player; at this level, be confident enough to do anything
William Moore, who has one of the best game records at S.P.O.R.T. Academy, informs me he could beat just about anyone in the room. “I have my secret move coming out,” the six-year-old announces on a fall weekend. He deploys a classic two-space pawn slide, against volunteer Whitney Bailey. Bailey, too, is also fairly new to the game. She laughs good-naturedly as the kids trick her. “That’s a bad piece to sacrifice,” Will says to her a few minutes into the game. “You just took it. Sacrifice implies I wanted you to take it,” she teases him.
Will is an angel-faced little boy with chubby cheeks and a neat set of curls. As the other instructors confirm, he is exceptionally good. “He’s beat almost everyone,” says Shantasia McKee, another volunteer. Most of the time, Will keeps his eyes on the board, hardly looking up between turns. On some Saturdays, he is more childishly exuberant. “Hoo-ha!” he whoops after he puts eight-year-old Jaylen in check. He jumps out of his seat as he chases his opponent’s white queen down the board. McKee turns around to chastise them: “Y’all playing too much, because you’re too loud,” she says. But it takes only another minute for Will to checkmate Jaylen’s king.
When Will first started playing, he swept the pieces off the board and refused to continue after each loss, Cipha says. Now, he shakes hands with a winning opponent. He’s sometimes still fidgety—he gnaws playfully through a piece of pizza at the snack break before almost running out of the room. But Reeves guides him back to his plate and says, “Will, you’re moving too fast. Back up.”
Will lives with his mother in a two-story house along the smaller streets of neighboring West Haven. The chess teachers have made a large impact in the life of the mixed-race boy. Since age two, Will attended Tané’s Lil World Family Daycare, run by Cipha’s wife Tané Trimble, and Cipha became one of his mentors. “In so many ways, his father isn’t able to be there for him,” Jammie Malik, Will’s mother, says as we sit at her kitchen table. Though his paternal great-grandmother picks Will up after school, Malik is essentially a single mother. She finds only limited time to play with him after an evening’s work as a patient-care assistant.
But over the past few months, she has seen Will grow increasingly obsessed with the board. He wakes up at 6:30 a.m. for school, and by the time he has brushed his teeth and put on his clothes, he is ready to set up a new game. If it’s not the day for UNO or checkers, she pulls out a reddish-brown wooden chess box. The slide-off top covers everything from pick-up sticks to plastic Chinese checkers balls. When she shows it to me, there is still a smear of syrup on it from the morning’s pancakes. When he got a haircut in September, he agreed to sit still for the barber only if they could play a round of chess at the end.
“Now I’m good,” Will tells me at one of the S.P.O.R.T. Academy sessions. “I’m going to the tournament.” He says it matter-of-factly, in a soft kid voice in which he hardly articulates each word. It is not a loud boast so much as a humble marker of confidence in his skills, even though any tournament S.P.O.R.T. Academy students may enter is still months away.
The chess program has offered him subtle support, rather than direct lessons on his identity. After all, his conception of black and white does not extend far past the chess board. When Malik asks him, “What color are you?” he offers the most obvious answer: Mom is peach, Dad is brown, and he is tan. He does not insist on playing to fit into any narrative of black uplift. It’s game time, and Will just wants to win.
Level 7: King—Obtain self-identity; see yourself as the Most High
Late at night one Tuesday, in Cipha’s spacious West Haven basement, I finally ask the S.P.O.R.T. Academy founder to play me. As I come down the stairs, I pass a wall with a massive airbrushed flag of the Nation of Gods and Earths. Not far from the flashing jukebox and the pool table, there is a humorous sign: “Born Cipha, Man Cave, Est. 2005.”
We gather around an elegant board with ornate metal legs. In a plain white t-shirt, arms crossed, he stands across from me and looks down at the game. “You got us thinking you really don’t know how to play,” he says, recalling my comments from previous weeks. The metal pieces feel heavy in my hands. My bishop skitters nervously over to the back row, where it kicks a pawn off the board and comes dangerously close to Cipha’s royal couple. In one deft move, he puts my white king in check. “You’re not using good decision-making skills,” he says, with a finger on the vulnerable queen I have left in the danger zone. “You’re a visualizer. You’re a journalist. You’re supposed to have the same eyes as the chess player, but you’re not using your eyes.”
I have spent weeks trying to figure out if Cipha has created illusions of grandeur for a program that is helping only a handful of kids. His comments fall somewhere between television drama and blunt critique. But the overall effect is that I sit up a little straighter and try to plan three, four, five moves ahead. I want to prove that I’ve learned the rules. I’m not just another easy opponent.
“You’re going to end your career right here,” Cipha jokes, as he chases my king down the board for many moves, before pinning it on the right side of the board. A pawn makes a mad sprint for the back row in the hopes of becoming a queen, and a valiant knight canters sideways to try to protect the king who has lost most of his troops. When the game’s over and done with at 11 p.m., I jokingly ask him, “What life skills am I supposed to have learned?” and he shoots back, “You don’t do well under pressure.” More specifically, he shows me how an intransigent line of pawns trapped all my power pieces in the back row, leaving the king unprotected.
It is too early to tell whether the S.P.O.R.T. Academy boys will win their tournaments, but at least Cipha makes them consider the impact of each move. “You can’t be walking around in life without a plan,” he tells Will in one of their more memorable games at the library. As they keep playing, he asks, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Will looks at him blankly, and Cipha concedes, “All right man, you’ve got a little time.” The six-year-old mutters, “I’ve got a lot of time.” Cipha grasps each of the pieces and keeps up the existential lecture. “I wonder: how much is a lot of time? That’s what I’m wondering, Will. How much is a lot of time?” In a few quick moves, he has Will trapped in a checkmate. Will, like the others, gets tired of all this talk and of losing. He asks to play somebody else, with the excuse that Cipha’s too good for him, but Cipha insists that winning one game is never the point; it’s how you get there that counts.
“As long as you think I am, then I’m going to be better than you,” Cipha says. “You can’t beat me without a plan.” Will may not make the connection between his trapped king and Cipha’s notion of lost kids, but like the other chess players, he’s bound to remember the phrases that are passed across the board. “They don’t even know that they need help,” Cipha had told me about his students. And even if his metaphors about a voice crying out in the wilderness are overblown, perhaps it is better that these students are proving themselves against manageable opponents, instead of all that exists outside the library.
Will, for one, is bound to ask his mother for yet another game when he returns home. He will set up the pieces again and again so that he may beat other kids in a tournament. One day, he might even beat Cipha. For that, he continues to practice, envisioning himself as the king of the board.