Learning to think outside the board

Chess: A program tries to teach city children not only about the game, but about discipline and values.

August 22, 1999|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Marchellus ("the `h' is silent") Chavez, 13, thinks he has out-mastered the chess master. He is ready to exterminate the Exterminator. He crunches his orange drink can with nervous excitement.

"Right now, I'm beating him," says Marchellus, a stocky kid in wire-rims with a big plastic "Power G" watch, pointing to a bishop and three pawns he has won from local chess legend William "The Exterminator" Morrison. "I just think I might take him."

But on the next round of his battle with 16 simultaneous opponents, Morrison sidles over and stares at Marchellus' board for a few seconds. Then, like a heron spearing a fish, he snatches his queen and slaps it down to put the teen-ager's king in check.

"Oh, man," Marchellus mutters, bravado evaporating. "That was cold! I don't even know how he did that."

So it went yesterday at Huber Memorial United Church of Christ, where Morrison took on a bunch of boys in orange T-shirts who call themselves the Knights of Valor, plus a few paying adults who put up $5 apiece for the privilege of losing.

The Knights of Valor are the creation of a group of men at the Govans church, led by Kenny Tabron, who believe chess can be used to teach city children more than chess. The mentoring program draws as many as 25 boys, and a girl occasionally, to its twice-monthly meetings.

Marchellus, a talented oil painter who has completed Chinquapin Middle School and will head for the Baltimore School for the Arts in the fall, is not the only boy in Huber's "chess ministry" to credit chess with turning around his schoolwork. Back in the sixth grade, he says, he got off to a dreary start, accumulating an average of 60.

"I started playing chess, and at the end of the year, I had a 92 average," he says. "Chess helped me focus. A video game, you don't really have to think. Chess, you have to think."

Which was part of the idea three years ago when Tabron, 43, of Forest Park, decided to turn the game he loved into a church project. He had often taken church youngsters bowling, skating or camping. But the Knights of Valor offered a more organized way to convey values to restless boys.

"I have no children of my own, but I call them all my sons," says Tabron, who manages a shoe store in Towson Town Center.

Tabron likes the mental discipline the game offers -- "It teaches them to focus on a problem, analyze and solve it" -- but he and his fellow mentors use it for more.

"We're teaching them to be gracious losers," he says. "We teach knighthood -- honor, integrity, respect, courage, to love God and to honor women. We're not just teaching chess."

Morrison, who honed his game hustling a living in the chess-savvy parks of New York City, regularly donates his time to such causes. He is a math teacher at Harlem Park Middle School and a master's degree student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he plays on the championship chess team. He is a "senior master."

In June, by going undefeated against 10 opponents from around the world at a New York tournament, he earned one of three "norms" he must achieve to advance to "international master." Then, if all goes according to plan, he'll win three more norms and become a "grand master," joining the game's international royalty.

On this day, circling clockwise among the 16 boards, dressed just like the kids in a Knights of Valor T-shirt, he is already an idol.

"We don't have many role models in the black community in Baltimore," Morrison says. "People need heroes. They see me, they say, `Hey, he's a regular man. I can do that, too.' "

Morrison has recruited another local chess standout -- David "The Pawnmaster" McDuffie, 39, who played him to a draw yesterday -- to teach chess at Harlem Park. He is working with Robert Cromwell, development director at Sojourner-Douglass College, on a plan they call "Train the Trainers" to give teachers and parents the chess skills required to teach the game in proliferating after-school programs.

The adults in charge of such programs are "often just sort of baby-sitting," says Cromwell, 51, a good tournament player. He and Morrison speak of integrating chess into the entire curriculum: chess scoring to teach math; chess to teach the history of feudalism; chess journals to sharpen reading skills. Chess could be "the gymnasium of the mind," he says, taking children off the street and away from the TV to develop their mental muscles.

He notes the success in Russia of using universal, early chess training to discover prodigies.

"We want to start 'em out learning the pieces at 5 or 6 years old. We want to develop some master chess players by 12 years old," Cromwell says. "Baltimore is a place with so much potential."

As a dozen preteen and teen-age boys sit before their chessboards in concentration, it is hard not to glimpse his vision. "This game teaches patience to kids who have no patience," Cromwell says. "Parents come to me all the time and say, `For the first time, my son is settling down and not running around.' "

The boys offer cautious endorsement of all this grown-up self-improvement talk.

Todd Caesar, a 12-year-old in red sneakers, says he uses chess to calm himself when trouble threatens at Hamilton Middle School. Marcus Burnette, 11, braces glistening, says playing one-on-one with his computer has taught him what it means "to set a goal and try to reach it."

Mostly, perhaps, the game teaches confidence to boys traversing the stormy waters of adolescence.

"If I keep my mind on the game, there's no limit to what I can do. I feel like one day I'll be as good as he is," says Marchellus, hooking an irreverent thumb at Morrison.

"If not better," he adds. He is smiling, but he is not joking.

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