One-time teen-age chess whiz Baraka Shabazz is no longer a pawn in the game
WHEN SHE WAS 15, BARAKA SHABAZZ WAS THE SIXTH-RANKED FEMALE CHESS PLAYER IN the United States, blowing both the minds and games of unsuspecting, disbelieving opponents. She had started tournament play in 1977, when she was 12, and by 1981 she had played in 72 tournaments (winning about half of her matches), had challenged international master J. Whitehead and international grandmaster Tony Miles, and had once beaten her former tutor, master Victor Baja. The summer she was 15, she took on 20 opponents simultaneously at Howard University; she won seven games, lost eight and had draws in the remaining five. A diminutive young woman, with a U.S. Chess Federation rating of 1,943 points, she was 257 points short of becoming one of the 600 national masters in the United States when she quit the game forever. She would have been the first African American woman to hold that title.
By age 17, she was a has-been, a young woman who walked away not only from the chessboard, but from the dreams and expectations of her family, coaches and all the people who knew about the miraculous little black girl who played chess.
Today, Shabazz is the 22-year-old mother of a 3-month-old son. She lives in Northeast Washington with her baby's father, a construction worker, and is a student at the Jefferson Business College on 18th Street NW, majoring in information processing. She has not played chess since she walked out of the World Open in New York in the fall of 1983, just before her 18th birthday.
She says she doesn't miss playing chess or the attention that accompanied it. But it's hard to believe her, especially for those who have only dreamed of having a talent so natural and rare. She says she has no regrets that she gave up fame, possible fortune or the prospect of becoming a household word -- but that's equally hard to believe. "When I gave up chess, everything was, 'How could you let us down?' " she says. " 'How could you give up the dream of being a great such and such? You meant so much to children, to teen-agers!' Anyone, even a white person, had something to say about me." In her chess heyday, Shabazz remembers, people would say "be yourself," but what they meant was "win the chess tournament."
"You couldn't think of yourself, because while those people loved and cared about you, they also wanted you to be what they wanted you to be." SHABAZZ FIRST LEARNED CHESS FROM
her mother's boyfriend, Yusef Shabazz, whom she thought of as her stepfather. (Her father and mother separated before she was born.) She was 12 at the time, and living in Alaska. Chess seemed the perfect game to keep her occupied during the snowbound winter. She began to play all the time -- and win much of the time. Right before she started ninth grade in 1979, she left school, at the urging of her mother and stepfather, she says, and devoted her attention to chess full time. Her stepfather quit his job on the Alaskan pipeline, her mother gave up her job in an unemployment office, and the family -- including Baraka's baby brother -- moved from Alaska to Oakland, Calif., so that she could receive better chess coaching. Four of Baraka's older sisters, all adults, stayed behind.
When the family arrived in California, a former professor at San Jose State offered to give Baraka free tutoring. For a while, the family lived in a motel and neither parent worked, surviving on charitable contributions from Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson, entertainer Eartha Kitt and others.
The life of a chess whiz wasn't all bad. Baraka liked reading articles about herself -- she enjoyed the attention -- liked to travel and liked to meet different people. Most of all, in the beginning, she liked the game.
She and her parents left Oakland in 1981, first spending a short time in Houston and then moving to Washington, D.C., later that year. Her mother thought Washington would be a better environment for Baraka, that she would receive the attention and financing she deserved in the nation's capital. Baraka began to play at Dupont Circle and gained quite a reputation locally. In August 1981, Howard University held a Baraka Shabazz Day to launch her on a trip to England to participate in the first World Under-16 Girls' Chess Tournament. In a field of 32 contestants from 18 countries, she won three games and drew four, sharing third-place honors with two others.
While Baraka played chess or studied chess or thought about chess, her parents looked at chess from another point of view. In newspaper articles from those years, her parents talked about lucrative endorsements. They referred to her as "the female Bobby Fischer." They envisioned Baraka dolls, books, great wealth ensuing from her talent. They described her as a role model, an inspiration, a credit to her people. They said that they expected black people to subsidize her chess career. What began as a game to Baraka soon became more than that. Chess became a burden. And sometimes, Baraka thought, it was a potential meal ticket for her parents.
Slowly, she began to dislike chess, especially when she saw how important it was to her stepfather and her mother. She began to think that adults were hooking their dreams on what had begun as simply a game. She felt she was getting sucked into someone else's fantasies.
"It seemed as though chess was stopping me from relaxing," she now says. "Maybe there were other things, but at the time, I thought it was just chess. I wanted to go back to school, and I couldn't do that. I couldn't do the things that other black American kids did. I didn't have any friends. It was because I couldn't talk to them about anything but playing chess, books and studying. I had no school to talk about, no boyfriends. I wanted something different."
Something different meant simple things: school, friends, flirtations. It meant focusing on herself: How do I look? What do other people think of me? Does he like me? But her fame wouldn't allow her to be a normal kid, to be herself. Instead, Baraka recalls, "I felt I represented blacks, children of all creeds, females, everyone." Before long, it was hard for her to figure out what was real and what wasn't -- or who she was. Her "stepfather" wasn't that -- he was her mother's boyfriend. Her real name was Christine Barker -- not Baraka Shabazz, the name she adopted when Yusef Shabazz came into their lives. She wanted to be a linguist when she grew up, not a chess master -- didn't she? "There were days when I wanted to go out and just do the craziest things without someone coming back and saying, 'Did you know that Baraka Shabazz did such and such?' " she says.
Sometimes, she would try to be just a teen-ager. But at other times, it was hard to give up the fame, and she would let the famous persona take over. "It was as if you really wanted to be a singer. But then you got an acting role and said, 'Hey, I'm making some money at acting. This is getting good.' Your singing would take a back door to things. You can understand how it could happen -- things just kind of swallow you up. I guess it's like drugs, an addiction. It's better every time, and it's better every time, and finally there's a time when you have to say it's not."
Baraka Shabazz gave up her addiction. "The last time I played was in 1983," she recalls. By that time, her family had returned to the West Coast, leaving Baraka in the care of a friend of a friend, Roberta McLeod, director of Howard University's Blackburn Center. McLeod, a dignified woman in her forties, was impressed with Baraka's talent and drive and believed that she could provide an environment better suited to Baraka's needs. McLeod received no compensation. She took in Baraka, she says, because "Baraka was a lovely young woman who was in need, and I felt I could help her. I grew up in a southern family, and the reason black people have survived so well, at least prior to modern times, is because we took care of each other's children. My mother became ill when I was very young, and I very naturally helped raised my brother, just as my parents had helped raised children in need."
But the Shabazz family had not fared so well, Baraka says. "Ever since chess was brought into my family's life, it's been in disarray, messed up, totally ruined," says Baraka. "I can't get back into it. When I think about it, the pressure, everything about it just comes back, and that's not good. When I see a chessboard now, I just smile and look away."
It has not been easy defining herself since she quit playing or dealing with the failed expectations of others, particularly her mother. She got her general equivalency high school diploma, attended two semesters at Prince George's Community College, worked for a while as a cashier at a Kentucky Fried Chicken near her home. Now studying at Jefferson Business College and working part-time at Connie Shoes in downtown Washington, Baraka hopes to find a job managing a computer company or working as an administrator for a law firm after graduation in June. "My perception of what goes on in law offices, the way they carry themselves and do things right to the letter -- I like that type of environment, that discipline," she says. She admits that such discipline appeals to her because it is "like chess." When pressed, she admits she flirts with the notion of attending law school.
Hers are meager goals for an ex-chess whiz who is now an attractive, bright, articulate young woman. "I wouldn't be where I am now if chess hadn't been introduced to me," she says with more than a little regret. "I do feel that I would be with my mom, or at least somewhere with family. I think I would be in my third year of college, in some linguistics courses, taking a little acting or something on the side. Just doing the things that any well-to-do black American family does. Sometimes I feel guilty about where my mother is and where I am. Because if I were still playing chess, things would be different between us. I wish we were together. With my mother, it was like, 'If you're not playing chess, then I don't want you' -- that kind of thing, although I don't think that's how she meant it."
In October, she telephoned her mother, who lives in California, still with Yusef Shabazz -- now her mother's common-law husband -- and their two small children. Baraka says it was the first time they had talked in the four years since Baraka stopped playing.
"When I called her," says Baraka, "I think she thought I was one of my sisters. She was real friendly, casual, and then she said, 'Oh, it's you.' I asked her if he was in the room, and she said yes. I told her I'd call her back some other time, when he wasn't around. I haven't done that yet." Neither parent will talk about Baraka today.
For now, Baraka Shabazz focuses on doing well in school, raising her son, building her own family. She is not exactly scarred by her love-hate relationship with chess, just changed in ways that even she doesn't fully understand. She believes the discipline, the stardom, even the rejection by some of her family have made her stronger. She shows this strength when she speaks of her child. She says she may, someday, teach him to play chess.
"My son is only 3 months old, but I was thinking to myself, 'What if he were 13 or 14 and had to think about some of the things I was thinking about when I was that age?' I wouldn't like it. I want him to have as many girlfriends as he can, be into as many sports as he can, think of all the words he can, because by the time I got to be 14, 15, I was thinking about going away.
"I used to wish I could fly like a bird just to get out of the situation I was in. I was already thinking about escaping." ::