His Next Move

High school freshman Marte Garner competed May 17, 2008, in the "Bum Rush the Boards" chess tournament, which is designed to promote the idea of strategy to the hip-hop generation.Video: Lois Raimondo/The Washington PostEditor: Jacqueline Refo/washingtonpost.com
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 7, 2008

He is already one move behind. He's overslept on the morning of his big chess tournament. So Marte Garner slips on his bluejeans and a white T-shirt and races through his Barry Farms apartment. He passes his rook, his little brother, and his bishop, his older one. His mother, the king, is rushing, too, on her way to work. The pawn whispers goodbye and pushes out the red door, racing for another chance to play the game of his life: survive and be among the last pieces standing.

"I'm a pawn," he says happily a few days earlier. "A pawn has power. You can never tell what a pawn will do next. A pawn can take anybody on the board."

"I would -- what do you call that word? -- sacrifice myself for my family," says the 15-year-old. "If my mother was in danger, I would put myself in front of her so she doesn't get hurt. I would sacrifice myself for my mother." And he is adamant that his mother is the king, the most important piece on the board, not the queen. Without the king, the game is over.

His life has become a chess game, and he has become a piece on its board. Chess has helped him frame his world. Chess is like life, the teachers at the rec center keep telling him. Chess, they tell him, is a mental game of transformation and survival. A game in which the weak could become strong and the strong could end up alone. All pieces on the board and in life, no matter how small, are significant, have their own power. Just because you may think you are a pawn, they tell him, doesn't mean you can't one day be king.

The words are as valuable as gold. Repeated every day in the Benning Park rec center's after-school program until he and the other students begin to believe them. A pawn could rise, despite his lot in life, despite his background, despite weak schools and dangerous neighborhoods where other pieces lurk, places where you could be minding your own business, moving across the board, then bam! -- just like that -- another piece tries to take you down.

Marte knows. He has burdens no young pawn should have to bear. In real life, pieces have fallen around him.

"My father was shot and killed when I was 1." He continues, without emotion: "My cousin got shot in the leg and arm. My uncle was killed when I was 10. Two boys, my role models who kept me out of trouble, died two years ago."

This is the reality of some children in Washington, where survival games are played at every level, some more fatal than the next.

But it doesn't have to be like that, they tell him at the rec, if you use the same strategy that you would use in chess: Look in front and behind at the same time and know that no piece is to be taken for granted.

It is the same strategy Marte has to use each day: to get to class at Eastern Senior High School, to move around his new neighborhood, where it is dangerous to be like him, new and not known. So he rolls with a swagger as he makes his way alone across the board of life. No rooks, no bishops, no knights out here to defend him.

"In real life you have to be cautious all the time," Marte says. "There is a lot of killing in D.C. You have to watch your back. You have to be on your toes. When they start shooting, you have to know where to run."

Always listening, always looking, he is wary as he catches the bus this morning, heading to the rec center, where he learned to play chess last year and spent this year practicing, match after match, readying himself for the tournament, for survival. To be among the last pieces standing.

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