It's how you play the game

Goal: A Govans club uses chess to teach city youths valuable life lessons such as patience and discipline.

August 04, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

If this had been the movie version, the chess underdogs from Baltimore would have astonished everyone by trouncing the swashbuckling New Yorkers who beat them so severely on last year's field trip to Harlem.

Eight-year-old Jeremiah Briley would have basked in adulation, explaining just how he did in his big-talking opponent. Kenneth L. Tabron, founder, president and philosopher in chief of the Knights of Valor chess club, would have exhorted his kids to be magnanimous in victory.

But it was real life yesterday at Huber Memorial Church in Govans, and the click-click-click of the chess pieces on the boards was the sound of the underdogs going down. Final score on the top 20 games: Harlem Dragons, 17, Knights of Valor, 3.

A stunned Jeremiah, who became a minor celebrity by becoming the only Knight to beat his opponent in Harlem last year, was fighting tears, and losing the fight, already having lost two straight games to a wily Dragon.

And Tabron had a different sermon ready.

"We lose with dignity," he told the kids and parents afterward. "We lose with pride. So we're still winners."

That, in fact, is the point. The 6-year-old Knights of Valor, like the far bigger and more established Harlem Chess Center, are about chess as a metaphor for life, a lesson in the discipline and reward of quiet, patient brainwork for urban kids more accustomed to the instant gratification of noisy video games.

"Chess is just the tool we use to teach concentration, analytical skills, to build self-esteem," says Tabron, 46.

With a few other dedicated souls at the church, he has built the Saturday-morning program into a model that some want to see replicated elsewhere.

"It's such a wonderful program," said Selwyn I. Ray, director of recruitment and outreach for the nonprofit Maryland Mentoring Partnership, as he watched the New York kids file off their bus and slap hands with a line of Baltimoreans, all between 7 and 17 years old and resplendent in gold T-shirts. "It's easy - really low-cost, low-maintenance, but it teaches honor, dignity and integrity. We want to move it to other churches around the state."

The club was born in 1996, largely as a brainstorm of Tabron, who also manages a downtown men's apparel store. "I just took my passion for the game of chess and my fascination with knighthood, and decided it would be a great way to mentor kids," he said.

Now about three dozen children, about three-quarters of them boys, regularly attend. With the assistance of David "The Pawnmaster" McDuffie, a local chess teacher and 1995 Maryland amateur chess champion, the club has helped a few members begin tournament play. (The three Baltimore victories yesterday were accounted for by the top two Knights of Valor, Donte Lovell of East Baltimore and Travis Hayes of Dundalk, both 17.)

At the Harlem Chess Center last summer, the Knights of Valors learned how much they had to learn. "It was like a high school basketball team playing the Lakers," said Tabron. There the youths met and got their T-shirts autographed by Maurice Ashley, a chess legend and the first black international grand master.

For Jeremiah, who joined the Knights a year ago "when my mom's computer broke," chess offered an alternative to his favorite video games.

"Instead of playing on my PlayStation all day, I have something else to do," he said.

Brandon Williams, 9, acknowledged having an addiction to a video kickboxing game called Tekken Tag Tournament. But he said he prefers chess.

"In chess, you have to think. When I wasn't a part of chess, I wouldn't think, I'd just react," he said.

"Chess has taught me discipline," said Frederick Cooper, 13. "If I get told to do something I don't want to do, now I'll just do it and get it over with. Before, I'd run off and hide."

After the triumph of the Harlem club yesterday, Henry E. Thomas Jr., a photographer and another adult leader of the Knights, sat Jeremiah down for a heart-to-heart talk about the agony of defeat.

"Hey, you were the one that beat their butts in New York," he said.

Jeremiah sat in glum silence.

"Hey," Thomas tried again. "You don't learn from the ones you beat. You learn from the ones you lose to. Right?"

Slowly, stoically, Jeremiah nodded.

"I guess," he said.

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