Bum Rush the Boards tournament mixes chess and hip-hop

At the Historical Society of Washington's fifth annual Bum Rush the Boards tournament, people of all ages get a lesson in chess and hip-hop culture.
By Kathleen Hom
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hip-hop music, break dancing, DJs scratching records and a chess tournament. That may seem like the old "Sesame Street" game "One of these things is not like the others," where you had to choose the thing that "doesn't belong."

But earlier this month more than 165 people swarmed the Historical Society of Washington for Bum Rush the Boards, the fifth annual hip-hop chess tournament. Organized by Words Beats & Life, a nonprofit educational organization, the day-long competition was open to chess players as young as 5.

Registered participants could compete in up to six half-hour matches and, during breaks, explore hip-hop culture by learning break-dancing techniques, writing poetry or watching a DJ scratch records.

Joshua Sabater, 10, came to the event last year and didn't want to miss the matches or the chance to play with the turntables. He has been playing chess for two years, after learning from his dad and older brother. Though he lost two matches, "I like the competitive game," he said, and he liked hearing a DJ spin songs by his favorite artists, including Kanye West and T-Pain.

There were also kids who learned the game more recently. Kamau Stith, 9, dragged his sister Jamilah, 12, to the tournament. "We grew up on hip-hop," said Jamilah, who learned how to play chess in the past year at an after-school program.

Kamau likes that the event blends chess and hip-hop; he sometimes listens to this type of music while playing and finds it relaxing.

Jamilah also finds inspiration in lyrics by artists such as Tupac Shakur and Jay-Z. "I figure out what they're going through in a song," which comes in handy whether playing a match of chess or soccer. But "I'm embarrassed that I lost to a 7-year-old," she admitted after one match. Even so, she continued to play.

On the other hand, there are others who like to keep chess and hip-hop separate: for example, Yao Johnson, 5, who started playing when he was 4 during an after-school program. "I might be knocking down pieces" if there's music during a game, he said. "It feels crazy when I beat a 7-year-old. I win a lot and get trophies," he said, so he prefers to stick to his habit of playing without too many distractions.

No matter your preference, at any tournament "you get to meet new people and you make really good friends," said Tahira Mesa, 9. She has gone to three tournaments since learning the game in October. Last tournament, she didn't win a match, but this time she beamed after she won one and had a draw in another. "My grandmother says smart kids play chess," she said, and she feels great that she's getting smarter about the game.

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