Chess, though, was lovely and peculiar and different from the rest of life. For one thing, it didn't depend on circumstance. He played at every apartment to which he'd been ferried; he played at the homeless shelter. Sometimes Kasaun played without board or pieces -- with a friend, each calling out moves, or even by himself, staring at the ceiling, wide-eyed and happy. "If I feel bad, I go play chess," he'd say. "I feel good when I play chess. Chess is very powerful. Chess is inside me."
When Kasaun was 14, five years after chess was introduced to Harlem schools, the Raging Rooks became national co-champions -- the first time in four years that Dalton, a private school on East 89th Street, did not win the title. That same year, Kasaun competed for the Mayor's Cup, awarded to the best players in New York City schools. In the championship contest, he was losing. "Kasaun's talent is that he understands what's presented to him very quickly, assimilates it and diversifies all the responses, then multiplies them into possible applications," says Ashley. "That's a great gift." Kasaun sacrificed two pawns to a private-school kid, who took them with a patronizing air -- as if being ceded the win by an opponent he all along believed inferior -- only to fall into Kasaun's "vicious combination."
Amazingly, after being a national team champ and individual city champ, Kasaun dropped chess. He remembered why. Ten girls walked down the hall, giddy and with arms linked, and shouted at him: N-e-r-d. He'd grown sensitive. In high school, Kasaun stumbled onto more sociable preoccupations: girls and music. He could hear music a couple of times and play it back on the organ at his mother's church. After school every day, he'd head to Sam Ash, the music store on West 48th Street. He'd study sheet music and memorize a melody; if he stayed too long, they'd kick him out. Then he'd skip next door to Manny's Music to try out what he'd learned. Kasaun stayed for hours, practicing on the keyboards, always promising salesmen he'd buy. Eventually, he'd win a scholarship to Harlem School for the Arts.
A study commissioned by Chess-in-the-Schools would determine that playing chess correlated to better reading skills -- and, it's fair to imagine, to better grades -- but that was only if a student attended class. Kasaun preferred to sneak into empty studios and practice piano. He nearly flunked high school, and didn't know whether he'd attend college.
That's when Maurice Ashley, Kasaun's former coach, called Professor Howard Prince, a chess coach at BMCC. Prince is a chess activist -- currently, he's president of the Marshall Chess Club in the Village -- and advocate: He'd helped get the Laurence Fishburne character in Searching for Bobby Fischer a teaching spot at BMCC.
For years, he'd dreamed of a BMCC chess team. In this dream, he saw himself, a short, haimish chess coach who takes mighty drags on tiny Capri cigarettes, jumping in the air, celebrating a victory -- almost in slow motion -- glasses bouncing on his nose. He'd awake feeling exalted. Then he'd return to the chess club he'd founded to play with the rest of the patzers -- the term a skilled player uses for rank amateurs. In 1992, though, Prince and Vicente Revilla, a library-science professor who became co-coach, were playing speed chess in the cafeteria. A student challenged them. Usually, each player receives five minutes. The challenger set his clock to one minute. Prince, after being crushed, had one thought: "We have a chess team."
The key to winning college chess is recruiting. In this, Prince and Revilla have a few advantages. The primary one is that the New York area probably has the greatest concentration of chess talent in America. And then there's the money. Prince and Revilla control a rare thing in college chess -- scholarships financed by a garrulous midwestern millionaire who doesn't know the first thing about chess.
Sherif El-Assiouti, one of Egypt's top players, found BMCC through the Manhattan Chess Club, a building anomalously located a few doors from Orso on Restaurant Row. The club's manager told Prince that Sherif was a strong player embarrassed that his public-school students laughed at his English. (Later, he'd realize students laugh at native speakers, too.) Prince offered him a 75 percent scholarship to study English and play chess.
In Kazakhstan, John Easton worked with computers; when he came to New York at 18, he didn't know how to say, "I'm good with computers." He saw his future on Wall Street; to get there, he thought of his past. He'd been a chess prodigy -- at one point third in the Soviet Union in his age group -- tutored, in part, by his scientist dad. "I didn't beat my father till I was 11!" he reports in a scandalized tone. He, too, got a scholarship.
At the Manhattan Chess Club, John met Alexander Stripunsky, who will soon officially be a grand master -- the highest chess level; there are only about 30 active in the United States. Alex was the toughest sell. "English is important," John told him in Russian; plus, Alex loved Hemingway and Salinger. And he'd have to play only one tournament -- that's the entire season. With John translating, Prince hurried Alex through registration in the few days before the Bowling Green Pan-Ams.
When Ashley recommended Kasaun, Prince didn't hesitate. It wasn't as if Prince could try anyone out. Often, he didn't understand what his players were up to. "They'll calculate far in advance of anything I can see," says Prince.
Only after he'd enrolled at BMCC did Kasaun confess to his girlfriend, the first he'd ever had. "I play chess," he told her. "She didn't know about my chess history," says Kasaun. Secretly, though, he'd missed chess. Soon he was again playing for hours. Sometimes he'd stay at the chess clubs till eleven. "Getting in shape," he called it. Days, he worked as a chess instructor, taking a job in the public schools just as his mentor, Maurice Ashley, had. Kasaun had spent high school pining for the attention of girls. In college, when he finally got a girlfriend, he went back to his true love. He liked women, pursued their company: His girlfriend was Japanese, and he was studying Japanese; he'd been interested in Spanish women and had taught himself Spanish. Still, he says, "chess is more interesting than a girl, more emotional, more intimate, more reliable. I enjoy it more. I have a desire for a girlfriend, but it's not a necessity." Clearly, chess is. "Chess connects deep down," he explains.