The Harlem Gambit

The Raging Rooks had what it took at the national junior high school chess championships
November 11, 1991

A block from Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Junior High in Harlem, bars, nightclubs and stand-up pizza joints are strung out like plastic pearls on a dime-store necklace. Across the street, a homeless man who has been sleeping on the curb slowly disentangles himself from cardboard and newspapers, gets up and limps over to some other guys slugging pints of cheap booze from paper bags.

At 7 a.m., an hour before chess practice begins and almost two hours before classes start at Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Michael Johnson and the rest of the Raging Rooks pick their way through the chaos of the inner city to Room 110, where Richard Gudonsky usually teaches science. Amid charts depicting a frog's digestive system and the reproductive cycle of the earthworm, the Rooks pair off and square off on Gudonsky's chessboard battlefields.

Gudonsky coaches the Rooks in chess fundamentals. Twice a week Maurice Ashley, an instructor from the Manhattan Chess Club School, instills the finer points of the game, and they helped the Rooks tie for first place last April at the junior high U.S. Chess Federation championships in Dearborn, Mich. The Rooks ripped 61 other teams, including the defending champs from New York City's Dalton School, whose $12,600 high school tuition exceeds the yearly salary of many of the Rooks' parents.

"Nobody expects young blacks from Harlem to do well at anything but basketball," says Ashley. "But these kids have checkmated all sorts of facile assumptions—that inner city black kids can't learn, that they're not as smart as whites."

"They're children of impoverishment," says Gudonsky. "Some have crack-addicted mothers or abusive stepfathers."

The captain of last season's team, Kasaun Henry, stayed in a single-room-occupancy hotel for part of the school year after his family's apartment was torched. "These kids can achieve at anything, given half a chance," says Gudonsky.

The Rooks are not child geniuses. "They're just pretty sharp 13- and 14-year-olds who respond well to coaching and put in lots of hard work," says Gudonsky.

Most are solid B students who devote more time to chess than to homework. "The neighborhood I live in has a lot of dope—a lot of people pushing it, a lot of people killing each other for it," says Johnson. "Chess kind of takes my mind away from all that."

Rook alumnus Charu Robinson, who lives around the corner from four crack houses, says the spartan discipline that chess requires helped land him a scholarship to Dalton, where he's now a ninth-grader.

"Charu is in another world," says Gudonsky. "He still hasn't gotten over the fact that Dalton's baseball team flies to Florida during their spring break."

A casual player, Gudonsky began a chess club at the school in 1972, when Bobby Fischer became world champ. "Everyone I knew wanted to play chess against me," recalls Gudonsky. "And everyone beat me."

While Gudonsky was playing another teacher at recess one day, a student came by to watch. "Can I play?" asked the student.

"Not today," said Gudonsky. "But stop in again tomorrow." The student stopped in, played and asked if he could bring his friends the next day. And so the Rooks got started. Today there are some 50 youngsters in the Rooks club; eight to 10 of the best at match time make up the team.

Ashley first learned about the Rooks two years ago when the Manhattan Chess Club sent him to the school to give the kids some pointers, and he began accompanying the team to local tournaments. A senior master from Jamaica who grew up in Brooklyn's tough Brownsville section, he didn't begin playing the game until he was 14. Now 25, Ashley hopes someday to become the first black grand master. "Maurice is the perfect role model for these kids," says Gudonsky. "He shows them what is possible."

Ashley knows that chess separates the hard workers from the dilettantes. You can't fake tournament chess. It's a game of iron will, rigorous study and fierce psychological intimidation.

He and Gudonsky teach with cool restraint. "I tease the kids," says Gudonsky. "It's a way to relate to them outside the formal setting of the classroom."

Few Rook rookies know a bishop from a parish priest. "Kids who come to the chess club want to learn," says Gudonsky. "Unfortunately, in their subject classes, learning has become an ordeal. Students feel chained to their seats. And there's so little funding that the schools can't afford to provide anything but the basics. Offering chess to these kids is like giving a hungry man a buffet dinner."

Many kids find chess so filling that they skip lunch to play in Gudonsky's noon practice sessions. On a recent day, a fledgling Rook named Eric Washington challenged Gudonsky to a game. "You look like a novice," said Gudonsky. "I'll play you lefthanded."

"That won't make a difference," said Washington.

"Then I'll play you lefthanded with one eye closed, standing on my right foot."

"Still won't make a difference."

"I'll tell you what," Gudonsky said magnanimously, "I won't think."

Washington pondered this awhile. "How will I know?" he asked.

Gudonsky grinned. "You'll know by all the stupid moves I make."

Gudonsky is a neat and tidy and straightforward man who remains idealistic despite 24 years in a singularly frustrating job. He has plastered the walls of his classroom with posters and pictures of unicorns. "I'm steeped in unicorns," Gudonsky says, with considerable understatement.

"Unicorns have strength and vulnerability, like these kids," he says.

Gudonsky's apartment in Queens is jammed with unicorn tapestries, unicorn paintings, even a unicorn shower curtain. "Sometimes I'll surprise myself by finding a unicorn I've never seen before," he says. "But when it comes to surprises, nothing has ever jolted me more than the way the Rooks performed in Dearborn." Which is not to say they lucked out. Says Robinson, "We were the best players there. We should have done better."

Gudonsky hadn't appreciated the Rooks' rage to win until he got to the tournament. "One of our eight boys, Brian Watson, wound up losing a match he should have drawn," he says. "Brian was so upset that he got up from the board and practically ran out of the room."

Gudonsky caught up with Brian and praised him for trying. "I told him that he had played a terrific game, and that he should be proud of that," Gudonsky says. "I told him you can learn from defeat. He looked at me and broke down and cried. His chest was actually heaving. I'd never seen anyone weep that way. It wasn't that he'd lost the match, but that he felt he had let down the team. That's how much these kids wanted to win."

The Rooks were in a three-way tie for third place going into the penultimate round, when they blundered into fifth. They trailed the leader, McClintock Junior High of Charlotte, N.C., by 2½ points. But McClintock folded in the final round, as did the other teams, while the Rooks won three of their matches and drew the other. Suddenly, the Rooks were sharing the title with J.R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration Junior High of Philadelphia.

The well-tutored Rooks reacted with cool restraint. "We all yelled 'Yes!' under our breath," says Robinson. "We didn't want to scream. Too many people were in the room."

When the Rooks returned home, Bob Guccione threw them a party in his Upper East Side townhouse. Guccione, a team patron, publishes Penthouse, a journal not known for its interest in chess. "Is it a magazine about penthouses?" Robinson asked.

When told it was not, he said, "Whenever I have free time, I play chess. It's just chess, chess, chess."

The Rooks are devoted to chess, but not to the complete exclusion of females. Boy Rooks seem interested in girls, but it's unclear whether chess aids romance. "I was getting girls anyway," says Johnson insouciantly. "Chess just added a few more."

PHOTOFRANK VERONSKYAshley (center) and Gudonsky (right) have made sure the Rooks know all the right moves.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)