Before breaking into herky-jerky dance moves, Christopher “Mad Dog” Thomas calls his students to attention. “If I say, ‘Peace,’ you say, ‘Peace.’ Peace!”
Fifteen skeptical dancers-to-be yell “peace” back at their coach, who has flown in from Chicago to teach them how to move their feet at a fast-paced 170 beats per minute.
“Get in three lines,” Thomas says. “Lemme see some guys right here!”
The kids didn’t come to this Washington community center just to learn how to dance. Thomas’s moves are an added bonus to a much slower-paced main event: a chess tournament.
“We really just want to expose kids to a different kind of tournament,” says David Curry-Johnson, one of the organizers of Bum Rush the Boards, the hip-hop chess tournament.
Now in its 10th year, the tournament fuses chess and hip-hop to promote critical thinking alongside math and engineering skills. Between chess matches, 80 kids — most ages 7 to 17 — participate in workshops such as Thomas’s. They learn the physics of footwork, a dance style popular in Chicago, and the engineering that goes into hip-hop production.
The tournament is hosted by Words Beats & Life, a Washington nonprofit organization that uses hip-hop as an educational tool.
“Hip-hop is chess,” says Curry-Johnson, who notes that such hip-hop artists as the Wu-Tang Clan incorporate chess into many of their songs. “In a chess match, you’re sizing up your opponent and thinking on your feet, like an MC. You’ve got to really know your opponent, their strengths and weaknesses.”
Most of the tournament’s kids come from the Washington area, but a dozen have driven from Athens, Georgia, as part of the city’s Classic City Knights chess team.
“What did y’all learn from this round?” their coach, Lemuel LaRoche, asks them in a team huddle after lunch.
“Never underestimate your opponent!” one boy says.
LaRoche, who goes by “Coach Life,” nods his head. “You can’t go in there thinking you’re gonna win.”
A teammate tells Yosua Diekumpuna, 12, that he needs to step up his game if Classic City is going to succeed.
“Just want to make Athens proud,” Yosua says.
Like playoff basketball or a rap battle between Drake and Meek Mill, tournament chess is serious business. Especially the final round.
Shaka Greene, who coaches the Bravo Zulu Chess team and teaches middle school math in Washington, paces the floor, tallying the match results of his 22 Team Zulu players in a notebook. One of his beginner players, Makhi Daye, 11, is fighting to take control in his match. He and his opponent, Ayah Swan, 6, who plays with a group called Chess Girls D.C., are both undefeated.
Makhi is calm and collected. He grabs his king, the game’s most important piece, and holds it above the board, testing his options before deciding where to move.
Ayah stands up, stretches to her toes and extends her arm across the board to make a bold move with a rook.
The gambit doesn’t work. Makhi gets the checkmate a few moves later.
“It feels good,” he says. “I’m undefeated.”
Ayah is upset. She wanted the same thing.
Next month, though, she’ll have a chance to go undefeated at an even bigger venue: the national scholastic chess championship, held at Walt Disney World in Florida.
Unfortunately, Disney will not be offering dance lessons.