On the day that 21-year-old Kasaun Henry's team played the top-ranked University of Toronto, Kasaun went with his thug look. Other competitors at the fifty-second annual Pan-American Intercollegiate Chess Championship appeared as usual, scrubbed, tidy. Day in and out, they'd slipped on colorful school jackets or else nifty sweatshirts with seals and Latin words. Kasaun, captain of his team, had packed complete outfits in his luggage. He needed luggage -- two thick suit bags and a carry-on case for the four-day tournament. He was representing himself and also, perhaps, confusing the enemy. One day, he dressed in an Italian suit, a green-and-white check so loud he figured it could be seen a mile away. On the day his team played the top seed, Kasaun transformed his look. Tommy Hilfiger jeans. Mountain Gear boots. A hooded gray sweater three sizes too big. A gang-style scarf. A brown Fubu stocking cap. Had the nation's most prestigious college chess tournament ever seen the likes of him? Kasaun looked like he might rob the place, he thought happily.
There are two ways to win a chess match. You can checkmate an opponent or force him to use up his time. Kasaun glanced at the clock. Not only was he in a winning position, but he had five minutes remaining. His opponent had just four seconds. Spectators circled the board, itchy for the New York thug to finish off the nice young man from Canada. Kasaun twisted his scarf over his mouth, leaned back into his hood. You could barely see his face. Then he plunged in, picked up his pace.
"It was a miracle," Kasaun would say of what happened next. The unhappy kind. In a blur, his opponent picked off Kasaun's queen, his most powerful piece. "I lost my cool," he'd say. It was a fatal blunder, the worst he'd ever committed. "I was embarrassed," Kasaun would say. And defeated.
Kasaun and his teammates are an unusual bunch, in part for their diversity. The team -- an Egyptian, a Ukrainian, a Kazakhstani, an African-American -- can barely communicate with one another. More unlikely still is that their school, Borough of Manhattan Community College -- the type of two-year college recently disparaged as an academic backwater -- has emerged as America's dominant collegiate chess power. Three times in the eighties, Harvard won the Pan-Ams, the only college chess tournament that matters; Yale won twice. By the time of Kasaun's match, however, BMCC, a school whose student body is more foreign and less affluent than almost any other in America, had also won twice. In 1993, BMCC's first year in the tournament, it bumped off Harvard, most of whose team had never heard of BMCC. (That was the year one BMCC player trained at the Blimpie's near City Hall.) This past year, BMCC aimed for a record third title in five years.
Of course, if that was to occur, Kasaun had to get on track. BMCC's top player, Ukrainian-born Alexander Stripunsky, 27, a grand-master candidate, was prevailing, but in grueling six-hour matches -- twice a day at times. Also winning was the smiling Akhjan Esjamov, 21, from Kazakhstan, who'd recently metamorphosed into John Easton. ("Call me John; it's easier," he'd say, and he had business cards printed with his new name.) But Egyptian Sherif El-Assiouti, 37, an international master, the rank below grand master, had a throbbing earache. He mustered only a few hours' sleep a night and played quickly, intent on holding his own. Kasaun's games were thus essential and, now that he'd squandered one, precarious. After all, he recalled that in a previous tournament, a single loss had bedeviled him, a precursor to three more defeats. For that to happen again would be disastrous for the team's hopes and for Kasaun's.
Alex might say, in rudimentary English, "I love chess," and dream of being world champ, which some thought he could accomplish. To hear Kasaun talk, chess was love. He'd been homeless, impoverished, physically threatened. In all those situations, he'd counted on chess. "If I have chess, I don't have to depend on people," Kasaun would explain: "I have something people can't affect or change."
The night of his blunder, Kasaun thought he'd never been so exhausted. He returned to the University Plaza Hotel in Bowling Green, Kentucky, site of the tournament. He shared a room with Sherif, a soft-spoken engineer who smoked Marlboros until the room clouded over. "Try to remove any bad feeling in your heart," Sherif told him. "We need you."
"Keep fighting," Kasaun told himself. "Keep fighting."
"You have to fight," Sherif agreed in his enthusiastic new English. "Without fight, forget about it."
Kasaun took up chess as a 12-year-old student at Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Junior High School on West 129th Street -- one of the first students to learn the game through a then-new inner-city program, Chess-in-the-Schools. Looking for someone to practice against, he wandered into Marcus Garvey Park, where one player proclaimed "I'm the best here" and took Kasaun under his wing. He'd teach him rough, fast street chess and keep him safe. At first, Kasaun was a laughable competitor. One friend would finish a game of baseball and call out, "Let me go beat Kasaun real fast at chess before I go home." ("I'm going to crush you," he'd tell Kasaun, as he did just that.)
Soon, though, Kasaun had joined the Raging Rooks, the chess team at Adam Clayton Powell. School intimidated Kasaun. Nearby crack houses were one fearful element, his fellow students another. "We" -- the chess team -- "had an underlying fear of being jumped," says Kasaun. "We wanted chess, so we went to school." He reached school an hour before classes started -- to play and also to duck conflict. He played during lunch and then over the phone once he got home -- he'd fall asleep playing and wake up with pieces stuck to his face. His mother, a minister in a Pentecostal church, initially worried that chess was "the devil's game" -- it did, after all, seem to take over her son. But, says Kasaun, "I realized I had to stay away from trouble. It was easy to get sidetracked."
At home, insecurity came in other forms. "He's from a very poor, a deadly background even," says Maurice Ashley, 32, the Raging Rooks chess coach at the time. Ashley, who's from Jamaica, learned chess growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn before becoming a Chess-in-the-Schools employee and, later, the highest-rated African-American chess player. Kasaun hardly knew his father. When his mother, a teacher, was out of work, Kasaun remembers, he received 25 cents for dinner -- and bought five nickel candies. His family must have changed apartments a dozen times, looking for better, safer, cheaper, or just new spots. "I felt like a nomad," he says. After a fire -- a fire in which, he says despairingly, he lost twenty chess trophies -- he and his mother ended up in the Harriet Tubman shelter. He had no money to wash his clothes and so walked the halls of Adam Clayton Powell smelling like a house on fire.