In the world of scholastic chess, Gregory Harris is known as "Dr. Hypno," a brilliant tactician whose board moves hypnotize opponents, causing them to hallucinate and blunder as he crushes his way to victory.
A senior at Anacostia High School in Southeast Washington and a protege of the Shaw neighborhood-based Chess House of Washington, Harris, 18, was back in action yesterday at the second annual Washington Post Scholastic Chess Championship, successfully defending the D.C. title he has held for two years.
About 200 youths, ages 5 to 18, representing public and private schools in the metropolitan area, including West Virginia, participated in the event. But for Harris, winning trophies was not the main attraction.
After only a few years as a chess player, Harris could feel that his powers of concentration had been enhanced and that his ability to analyze was sharper. Because he learned to see another man's point of view, to persevere in tough situations and learn from his mistakes, he gained new "outsights," as he calls them, on how to master the most important game of all, the one called life.
"Chess helps you understand concepts like planning, sacrificing and the consequences of hasty decisions," Harris said. "You learn to say to yourself, 'If I do this, the other person will do that; if I do that, then this will happen -- and I will lose.' So you look at the situation all over again."
It is precisely the inability to reason and weigh situations that has left so many thousands of young men in this city vulnerable to the lure of the street life.
In Harris' Southeast Washington neighborhood, there are ample examples of people his age who have taken this dead-end path. For now, some may have more spending change in their pockets, maybe even a car. But chess teaches that the race does not always go to the swiftest, and that patience and discipline have their own rewards.
"Chess is so challenging and satisfying that the streets are boring by comparison," he said.
"When I play chess, I see my kingdom laid out before me, with an army at my command. I am the king. It has also improved my concentration so much that I am learning to like reading books that aren't even about chess."
"You look at a kid with a background like Harris' -- a single-parent home, not a lot of money -- and it's like most of the kids I represent in the D.C. Juvenile Court system," said David Mehler, a lawyer and organizer of The Post chess tournament. "But the fact is these same kinds of kids can -- and do -- turn out like Harris, with their heads screwed on straight."
But only if they learn a critical skill -- one which happens to be strongly emphasized in chess.
"You must know how to think and that's what we try to teach our kids to do," said Sammie Fitzgerald, executive director of the Chess House and the Revelations Chess Association of Washington. "In chess, as in life, there are so many variables, so many possibilities, that you must think of tactics that allow you to control the board, to attack and protect yourself at the same time, keeping in mind that in chess, as in life, one wrong move can terminate your game."
Fitzgerald says the Chess House, located at 910 P St. NW, has far more children interested in learning than the house has resources with which to teach them. Any financial assistance would be greatly appreciated, he said.
"When I see 5-year-olds able to sit and be quiet for three hours, I feel we have tapped into something special," Fitzgerald said. "It's called concentration. It's how we get our children to learn. There just has to be a way to get more kids involved. I believe every school in the area should have a chess club."
Lena Harris, Gregory's mother, would certainly second that emotion. She sounds so proud -- the way you want to hear mothers speak of their sons -- when she says, "He's so motivated and independent."
What this means is that she doesn't have to worry about her son straying off in search of some illusion because he has learned, with the help of chess, how to keep himself -- not to mention his opponents -- in check.