Six p.m. in Dupont Circle; the pawns cast long shadows across the cement tables in the late afternoon sunlight. Baraka Shabazz, 15 years old and not particularly tall, casts an even longer shadow as she goes from table to table, asking if anyone is interested in a game of chess. It isn't as easy now as it was a few weeks ago, back when she was unknown, a chubby litle black girl in denim overalls and a green T-shirt, her close-cropped hair concealed under a kerchief, challenging the grown men who play chess in the park. Now, she is recognized; she has left a trail of victims.
"Baraka?" says Paul Glass. "Yes, I know Baraka. The little girl who's a candidate master." Glass, a veteran player in Washington tournaments, is a regular visitor to the Dupont Circle tables. He thought he had seen it all until he met Baraka. "I started the first game expecting an easy win," he recalls."I didn't know what hit me. The second time, at least I knew what hit me."
It all began a little over three years ago, with cabin fever in Anchorage. It was a few days before Christmas in 1977. The Shabazz children, at home on school vacation, were confined indoors by the weather, and their father (who had moved to Alaska to work on the pipeline) decided he had to do something about it. "He went out and bought us a chess set," Baraka Shabazz recalls, "and he gave it to my sister and me and said, 'Here, play chess.' We told him, 'We don't know how to play,' so he showed us how the pieces work and said, 'You have to get your opponent's king,' and that was the first time I played. Six weeks later, February 16, 1978, I entered my first chess tournament and won three games out of five."
Since then, the pace has been fast and the direction straight up. Baraka has been invited to play in the 1981 U.S. Women's Championship, which is limited to the 12 top-rated players in the country. It will happen next month in Utah, and is the first step in the world championship cycle, which produces a winner in 1984. The name of Baraka Shabazz is sixth on the tournament list, and if she had won one more game in the last few months it would probably be fourth. For a teen-ager who did not know a rook from a knight four years ago, the accomplishment is amazing.
Most of the people she plays in chess tournaments are adult white males, and they have trouble taking their opponent seriously when she is a teen-aged black girl. At least until they notice they are losing. Then they have trouble accepting the fact.
"I have had a lot of opponents blow smoke in my face," she says. "They get red in the face, some of them try to cheat, and sometimes they knock the pieces over. A few weeks ago, I had an opponent who was drinking coffee out of a Styrofoam cup. At the beginning, he was smiling and relaxed, but then he began nibbling on the cup. By the end of the game, that cup was covered with tooth marks all around the rim.
"I remember one tournament where I was playing a 17-year-old boy who came in with his mother. He took one look at me and told her, 'You won't have to wait for me; I'll be back in half an hour.' After he made a couple of moves, he went over to talk to the tournament director. I saw them looking at my name on the list of players -- laughing at my name. Well, instead of getting mad, I thought the best way to handle it was to beat him -- and to take a long time about it. The game went on for hours, and it kept getting worse for him. Finally, I got his queen in a pin; no escape possible. At first, he didn't notice it; he just sat there calmly looking at the board. Then he began to understand the situation, and his face got redder and redder. Finally, he just stuck his arm out and swept all the pieces off the table."
"It's a real problem," says her mother, Raqiba Shabazz. "We have raised Baraka, like all our children, to respect her elders, and we have had to impress on her that a chess game is a special situation. She has to challenge them, fight them and beat them. But she only does it on the chessboard; it doesn't carry over into life. We are very conscious of the danger of arrogance."
"I want to be the best chess player in the world," Baraka says, smiling a little at her own chutzpah but obviously meaning what she says. Before she can come even close to that, she has a lot of learning to do, a lot of dead-serious games to play, a lot of experience to accumulate.
And a lot of money to be spent. "We try to follow the tournament circuit," says her mother, "but it gets very expensive. For big tournaments, you can have entry fees of $250 to $300, plus travel tickets and out-of-town living expenses for a week. We're being priced out of the tournament market. We're trying to get a little sponsorship -- a corporate sponsor or an individual patron -- but so far we have had only a few one-shot contributions." Baraka's winnings are a steady but relatively small income compared to her expenses.
The Shabazz family left Alaska when they began to understand Baraka's potential. By that time, she had won the championship of Anchorage and there were no worthwhile targets in sight. "There was not much chess in Alaska," says Baraka. "That's why we moved. We stayed in California for two years, and now we have come East. I think the East Coast would be best." Now, they are in Washington considering whether to live here or in New York. They have been living on savings, with some help from disability payments her father receives from an injury suffered back in Alaska.
If she had been born in the Soviet Union, just across the Bering Strait from Anchorage, Baraka Shabazz would have been discovered years earlier by the efficient national chess apparatus; her studies, tournament activity and routine living expenses would be subsidized by the government. In the United States, she is simply a very promising young player. Nobody can say, yet, what her final potential may be, but she is now at about the stage where Bobby Fischer was at age 13, a year before he won the master's title -- but by then, he had been playing chess more than twice as long as she has. And he lived in New York, which is America's best climate for young chess talent.
"She may be a genius, but she's still my 15-year-old girl," says Raqiba Shabazz, watching her two youngest children playing on the grass in Dupont Circle. (Four older daughters are now raising their own families, and she is a grandmother several times over.) "We try to keep a balance in her life. She has a tutor for her school work, and she is an A student." From the same folder that holds the invitation to the U.S. championship tournament, she pulls out a 1978 report card. Under "Teacher's Remarks," there are two sentences in a teacher's handwriting: "Thanks for Baraka! Not only is she one of the outstanding 8th-graders, she makes my down times into ups."
Baraka's name was chosen with care and deliberation; it means "blessing" in Swahili and Arabic, and her parents take it literally. "We want her to be a young lady as well as a great chess player," says Raqiba Shabazz. "We travel with her and give her good books to read. She says she would like to learn foreign languages and we would like to give her the opportunity. She puts in long hours at chess and sacrifices a lot. She doesn't have the kind of social life that schoolchildren have, no chance to develop enduring friendships. But we think this talent may be worth the sacrifices." The Right Moves
The following game, from a tournament played last November at the University of California, Berkeley, shows Baraka Shabazz in action, climaxing with a brilliant queen sacrifice. Her opponent had a rating of 2,168 nearly master level and almost 150 points above her rating at the time. Since then, her rating has jumped up more than 100 points to 2,033.
White: Mike Arne; Black, Baraka Shabazz.
1. e4, e5; 2. Nf3, Nf6; 3. d4, exd4; 4. Bc4, Nxe4; 5. Qxd4, Nf6; 6. Bg5, Be7; 6. Nc3, Nc6; 8. Qh4, d6; 9. 0-0-0, be6; 10. Bxe6, fxe6; 11. Rhe1, Qd7; 12. Qc4, 0-0-0; 13. Rxe6, h6; 14. Bf4, d5; 15. Qe2, Bc5; 16. Rxf6, gxf6; 17. Nxd5, Bd6, 18. Bxd6, cxd6; 19.Qc4, Kb8; 20. Nxf6, Qg7; 21. Ng4, Rhe8; 22. Ne3, Qg6; 23. Nd4, Ne5; 24. Qb4, d5; 25. Ndf5, Rd7; 26. Rxd5, Rc7; 27. Qf4, Qf6; 28. Kb1, Nc4; 29. Qd4, Nxe31; 30. Qxf6, Nxd5; 31. Qxh6, Re1 ch; 32. Qc1, Rxc1; 33. Kxc1, Nf4; 34. g4, Nd3 ch; 35. Kd2, Nxf2; 36. g5, Ne4 ch. 37. Resigns.