In the back of the Reflection Eternal Barbershop in Baltimore’s Barclay neighborhood, owner Sundiata Osagie sits locked in an intense chess battle — with a 12-year-old boy.
A skilled chess player, Osagie easily beats most of the customers who challenge him at his shop. But this is no ordinary challenger. This 12-year-old boy is Cahree Myrick, who has just been crowned the first individual national youth chess champion in the history of Baltimore.
“This is the chess champion of the country right here,” Osagie brags to customers, as the two players trade pawns.
Although Cahree has learned to play in a formal chess league, his mother, Yuana Spears, brings him here to the barbershop — amid the buzz cuts, jazz music and history books — to test his skills.
“It’s a different style,” Cahree says. “When I play people in standard tournaments, I know what to expect. Here, they play more freestyle.”
Ever since Cahree went a remarkable 7-0 in Nashville two weeks ago to win a United States Chess Federation national title, many people, like Osagie, want to brag about his achievements. The Baltimore Kids Chess League, where Cahree plays, touted his victory as perfection. Mayor Catherine Pugh planned to honor him at City Hall. And the Baltimore Orioles invited him to Camden Yards Friday.
“This is a big deal,” says Steve Alpern, commissioner of the Baltimore Kids Chess League. “To win it with a perfect score is pretty incredible. People don’t think Baltimore City is producing these kind of achievements, but we are.”
Since the Baltimore Kids Chess League started in 2003, the program — which is open only to public school students in the city school system — has produced a number of excellent chess players, including three national championship teams. But Cahree is the first player ever to win an individual title.
To do so, he had to outscore 249 players from 28 states. Eighty-nine players from counties across Maryland competed at nationals, but Cahree was the only player to finish in the top five in any division.
“I don’t brag about it as much as my relatives will,” Cahree says. “I only talk about it if someone asks about it.”
Alpern said the city’s chess league is gaining more attention, thanks in part to victories like Cahree’s. He said he often gets calls from parents of students at private schools or county schools asking to join. He tells them they have to enroll in the city’s school system.
“I tell them, ‘Sorry, you can transfer to the public schools’ — and some of them do,” he says.
Lesa Horne, the coach of Roland Park Elementary and Middle School’s chess team, where Cahree plays, said she notices immediate benefits for the students on her squad.
“They have to learn a lot of focus. It teaches them to plan ahead and learn from their mistakes,” she said. “I’d rather them learn from mistakes on the chess board than on the streets.”
Going into the tournament, Cahree says he didn’t believe he would leave with the championship. He finished 24th a year earlier and knew how tough the competition was. But then he started to win. And win. And win.
“Everyone has a chance to win against whoever they play,” Cahree says. “I knew if I stick to my plan and tried my best that I would be fine.”
His mother, who had traveled to Tennessee with the team over Mother’s Day weekend, waited nervously outside the competition room for the results each round.
When Cahree emerged, she couldn’t tell from his face whether he had won.
“They call him the poker-face player,” she said. “You don’t know whether he’s winning or losing when he’s playing. Cahree’s facial expression never changes.”
In the final game, Cahree was playing an opponent from Texas. He was dressed casually in Nike shorts and an Under Armour shirt, while opponents from other states often dressed formally, wearing dress shirts and bow ties.
Cahree drew the black pieces and played one of his favorite openings: The Scandinavian defense. His confidence grew as the game went on.
“It was my toughest game yet,” he said. “The key to winning is not giving up. Keep thinking and pushing until you get there. And that’s what I did.”
Spears was full of nerves waiting on the results.
“It was nerve-racking. You’re waiting. You’re anticipating,” she said. “It was very intense. He did not show he was stressed at all. He was very confident about the whole game. Afterward, the whole team got up and celebrated.”
Cahree started playing chess in first grade at the Green School before transferring to Roland Park for middle school. Now in seventh grade, he splits his time between his twin passions for chess and track, where he runs the hurdles.
“Whenever I have time alone, I play as many games as I can,” he said of chess. “I play about five games per day.”
Spears said she saw how hard her oldest son was working as the tournament neared.
“On the weekends he put in a full day’s work, easily eight hours a day, getting ready for this tournament,” she says. “He showed the dedication; he showed the drive; he showed the hunger for getting ready for this tournament, and he was successful.”
After his title, Cahree received a warm welcome when he returned to the barbershop, where the men posed for pictures with him and boasted of his victory.
“Playing chess in this shop is a staple. It’s what we push,” Osagie says. “We call it mental calisthenics. A lot of older guys love it. They swear by the game. They were happy that a young kid from Baltimore won.”
Osagie says Cahree isn’t the only chess standout to stop by the barbershop. Internationally ranked chess master William Morrison, nicknamed “The Exterminator,” is known to bring his grandsons in for games.
“The culture of chess in Baltimore is bigger than people know. It flies under the radar,” Osagie said. “Cahree’s victory and his performance in the national tournament proves that guys have been putting in work, 24-7.”
As the two play, Osagie captures Cahree’s queen, and he’s closing in on victory. The room grows quiet. But the middle-schooler stays calm, strikes back and tips the game in his favor.
“He made a good move. I gotta give him credit,” Osagie says. “In chess you can’t give up. You’re never out of it.”