Corner store chess ace leads championship team PONDERING THE NEXT MOVE

March 30, 1995|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

The scent of leather fills the stuffy air of the Liberty Heights shoe repair shop where Donte L. Everett comes to do battle.

There's the intermittent whirring of a machine used to form new soles for old shoes. Occasionally, a customer strolls into the shop and steps across its well-worn tile floors.

And there's trash talk -- so much by Donte and other combatants that it sounds like the NBA. But the talk here is over checkmates, not basketball hand checks.

A & W Shoe Repair is where Donte, 16, learned the usually genteel game of chess.

He started playing here as a 10-year-old, matching wits against people with names like The Exterminator and Flipper. Now he leads City College's state championship chess team, which is going to Chicago next month to participate in the national high school tournament.

The competition at the shoe shop at 4718 Liberty Heights Ave. in Northwest Baltimore has helped Donte sharpen his game.

"I think this kid's got a gift. He sees the board," says James Schrier, adviser to City's chess team. Six players will travel to Chicago for the tournament April 7-9. Joining Donte will be Corey Gajewski, Aaron Redfern, Maurice Gardner, Thomas Brown and Chris Frankos.

Donte, who lives on Belmont Avenue in West Baltimore, was a freshman on last year's team, which reached the nationals with strong senior leadership. An unknown commodity at the time, he finished No. 1 among unranked players at that competition while his school was being led by two seniors. This year, he's blossomed into City's leader, Mr. Schrier says.

the anchor, he's the man on the team. As goes Donte, so goes the team," he adds.

In addition to the national championship, Donte will compete in a "Sweet 16" tournament involving the 16 best high school players in the state.

Steve Alpern, a curriculum specialist for special projects in Baltimore public schools, says Donte has the potential to become the premier high school player in the state. He notes that the sophomore recently gave a Russian grandmaster a struggle before losing.

"What he needs to do to get to the next level is study and work on it a little bit," Mr. Alpern says. "Right now, he's getting by on natural ability."

Donte not only excels at chess. He's a member of City College's varsity basketball team, was a member of the lacrosse team and takes all honors courses.

He's a pleasant teen-ager who speaks affectionately of his father in Texas, whom he never sees anymore, and his mother and two sisters. He speaks with admiration of his stepfather.

He sets high expectations for himself, and he's not modest about it.

"Most people say I'm arrogant, but I think I'm good at everything," says Donte, whose slight drawl betrays his Texas roots -- he moved to Baltimore with his mother when he was 10. "I just look at myself as successful."

He started playing chess shortly after arriving in the city. Seeking to earn money, he found a job shining shoes at the shop for owner Michael Richardson.

Mr. Richardson views his neighborhood business as a recreation center -- "a lighthouse in the middle of the storm" -- where youths can play chess.

Several teen-agers and young men were there one afternoon last week, with three games under way at once. Players made their moves, razzed their foes and punched the timers beside the boards.

Donte became fascinated with the atmosphere and began playing chess the day after he started his job shining shoes. "I just like winning, so it was just another thing for me to win in," Donte says.

But he didn't win at the outset.

"We had a group of chess players, and he was lowest on the totem pole," says Mr. Richardson, recalling his star protege's foray into the game.

"I used to lose like 30 in a row," Donte adds. "He used to beat me 20 in a row," pointing to Mr. Richardson, "then somebody else would beat me some more. But I always knew I'd be better than them. Now I can beat them 30 in a row."

When his confidence turns to boasting, the crowd turns against him.

Such was the case March 23 when he was locked in a tough match with 37-year-old Mark McPhee, who comes from Woodlawn four times a week to play.

Donte was ahead in the best-of-five series, two games to one, and started to brag. Mr. Richardson, one of Donte's biggest supporters, and others shifted to Mr. McPhee's side.

"We're just keeping him humble," Mr. McPhee says after losing the match, three games to two. "We can't just let him come in here and run over us. But we're real proud of him. He's an inspiration to a lot of the younger players."

Donte realizes that he's not in the top class of players. That becomes evident, he says, when he plays The Exterminator, a chess grandmaster who sometimes visits the shoe repair shop to play a few games.

"He would take my queen from me and give it back," Donte says. "A few moves later, he'd have my queen again."

In one of his more modest moments, Donte says he hopes eventually to become a chess master, although he doubts he'll ever reach grandmaster status.

He also has king-size hoop dreams. A slender 6 feet 2 inches, he hopes to grow a few inches and become a basketball pro. If that doesn't happen, he'll go to Plan B.

"If I don't make it to the NBA, I'm going to be a mechanical engineer," he says with certainty. "Eventually, I'll own my own company."

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