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Mr. Times and His Knights of the Square Table

Can one streetwise coach and a virtual United Nations of kids from Harlem win a national chess championship?

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At the start of the school year, Jerald Times, coach of the Dark Knights of Harlem’s Mott Hall School chess team, wasn’t feeling particularly sanguine about his club’s chances. As a New York school subject to the vagaries of public education, things are never easy, especially at an inner-city school on 131st Street, and this year was shaping up as no exception.

Since 1991, when Times’s predecessor, Maurice Ashley, the first and still the only African-American to attain the rank of grandmaster, started the program, Mott Hall, a.k.a. Manhattan P.S./I.S. 223, has been considered one of the top public-school chess programs not only in New York but the entire country. From 1997 to 2001, with Times as coach, Mott Hall had won three national championships. Back then, the school was an obligatory stop on the value-of-chess-in-the-schools tour. Bill Gates came uptown, declaring chess excellent for raising standardized-test scores. Prince Andrew arrived in a limo. New Yorker editor David Remnick was principal for a day, which he spent getting checkmated by sixth-graders before refusing to play a fourth-grader because enough was enough.

By 2003, however, the program was in trouble. Funding was cut by three-quarters, leaving only what the 37-year-old Mr. Times—as he is commonly called, whether he is in the classroom, scurrying down 125th Street, or taking some fool’s money playing a little speed chess in the park—refers to as “my cheap little salary.” Last year, for the first time, there were no funds to send the team to the national championships. With no more money available this year, prospects for the team to compete in the 2005 SuperNationals, to be held in Nashville, appeared equally bleak.

But then came this current team, a hard-charging bunch of 10-to-12-year-olds from Washington Heights, Inwood, and Harlem. Not one of them had played a game of tournament chess until as recently as a year before, nor had any of them ever taken the private lessons so important to the development of many of their neo-prodigy opponents. No grandmasters worked with them day after day. Few of their parents even understood the game (they are mostly sons and daughters of recent immigrants), much less played the role of the ubiquitous chess moms and dads lurking around the better Manhattan chess clubs.

Yet under Mr. Times’s streetwise tutelage, Mott Hall began to excel in local tournaments, racking up victories against far more experienced opponents. Then in January, the Dark Knights won the overall city championship in the middle-school division, competing with and beating such well-funded powerhouses as Columbia Grammar and Prep and the perennial champ, Hunter. Word of these successes reached Daniel Rose of the philanthropic Rose family, a longtime supporter of Mott Hall and Harlem public education. “They’re city champions, and they can’t afford to go to the nationals? What does that say about New York?” says Rose. He supplied the money for the trip out of his own pocket.

Which is how Mr. Times and his underdog crew found their way on this early April weekend to the Opryland hotel in Music City, USA, home of a thousand country singers in faux-cowboy hats and a long, long way away from Convent Avenue and 131st Street. This year’s SuperNationals was the biggest in history, with more than 5,000 kid players from across the country competing. And after two days and six of the scheduled seven rounds, much to the surprise of just about everyone except Mr. Times and his undaunted troops, Mott Hall was right in the middle of a three-way tie for first place in the K–6 under-1,000 division (kindergarten through sixth grade for players with a tournament rating below 1,000). Mott’s 16.5 points had them even with the Villa Academy from far-off Seattle and the more familiar junior minions of Columbia Grammar and Prep from West 93rd Street.

Back in Harlem, Mr. Times had said there would come “a moment of truth when dreams and fantasies would live or die.” Now that time had arrived. The next hour would adjudicate the fate of those dreams.

The electricity is palpable—the zap of synapses engaging in the football-field-size room where 2,500 chessboards are set out on 100-foot-long tables. Five thousand young, switched-on brains about to go to war according to the rules of a game invented more than a thousand years ago. “I love the hush, before the clocks start, before the first move,” says Mr. Times, standing in the back of the vapor-lamped ballroom, waiting for the climactic action to begin. He’d made his rounds, checking out the body language of his charges. First stop was Dionis Jahjaga. Tom Mlodozeniec might be the team’s highest-rated K-6 player, but Dionis is the loudest, which demands a certain priority. A big-faced 12-year-old with a bowl haircut, Dionis, like almost all the Mott Hall team members, was born outside the U.S., fleeing the war in Kosovo with his family in 1999. When he first got to the U.S., he spoke no English. Now, after uncounted trips on the 1/9 train and a year in Mr. Times’s classroom, Dionis talks the talk at least as well as he walks the walk. His seventh-round game was critical, a fact Dionis acknowledged by standing over the playing table.

“I think of sitting as a disability. It makes me look puny,” Dionis announced, looming over his opponent, a blond kid from Minnesota in a plaid shirt.

On the other end of the spectrum is Diego Mendia. Born in Cuenca, Ecuador, Diego, who came to New York in 1998, is something of a mystery man. Nowhere near five feet tall, Diego, a jeweler’s son who plans on becoming “a bio-scientist,” manifests a gnomish aspect with his too-big blue blazer and deadpan expression. No star in earlier tournaments, Diego has been the best in Nashville, winning five out of six games.

“I’ve heard of poker faces, but he takes the cake,” says Mr. Times. After round five, Mr. Times had watched Diego exit the playing area exuding an air of melancholy reserve. With any other kid, you’d assume he’d lost. But Diego had won, wiped the guy out.

Diana Durán is easier to read. A sixth-grader from Mexico, thin with long, flowing black hair and a sly look, Diana brought several changes of clothing to Nashville, including a neat swingy pantsuit and black jeans with slick orange piping.

“Look at that smile,” Mr. Times marveled, observing Diana haughtily ignoring her opponent, a rotund black kid from Michigan. “She flashes it at the guy, sweet as can be, then she kills them. Spider and the fly. There’s no mercy.”

That’s the fun of this team, Mr. Times says. “They’re from everywhere; there’s no conformity.” In addition to Dionis, Diego, and Diana, the Mott Hall club currently includes the Mlodozeniec brothers, Tom and Adam, from Warsaw; Santiljan Vukaj, from Albania; Luis Pardo (Colombia); John Wang and Yiqing Li (China); Samuel Dominguez and Elvis Morales (Mexico); Albert Iglesias, Leonardo Peña, and Angel Tavarez (Dominican Republic); Henry Loehrke (Washington Heights); and Lovel James (Harlem).


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