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.
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.
In Kasaun’s apartment, a one-bedroom he shares on 113th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, clothes are everywhere, piled like mounds of snow – a small car might be buried underneath – and spread on a couch; in a closet; over a glass table boiling with CDs, sunglasses, Snapple bottle; behind the Yamaha keyboard purchased (finally) from Sam Ash; everywhere, it seems, but in a dresser, where he keeps books: of Japanese, piano sonatas, chess.
Kasaun is handsome and slim, a good fit for clothes. And he’s a bit frantic as he talks about them. Emotions move in him. He races around, hunting for a camel-colored vest he says he loves. In seventh grade, when he wanted to be president of the United States, he owned a single suit and wore it every day. Now he’d like to own a hundred. Already he has twelve. He switches from one jacket to another – from a light-blue to a dark-green to a salmon, which is the first suit he bought when he entered BMCC, to a dark one by Oscar de la Renta for which he paid $139, the most he’s ever paid – as if he were backstage at a bedroom farce.
These days, Kasaun wears suits everywhere. He teaches chess in inner-city schools wearing suits – he’s trying to re-create the success of the Raging Rooks. He shoots pool in suits. “I’m thinking of going three-piece now,” he says, and then, grinning wildly: “My goal is cuff links.”
For Kasaun, suits are partly dress-up, an impish idea in gangsta times; but they also seem to come from a transformational urge. Suits are there to package a new, emerging Kasaun. Grand masters often dress formally for tournaments, he knows. He’d like to be a grand master, but really, he wants the grand master’s personality. He’s after seriousness, focus, truth even – things he suspects could easily drift beyond reach, the way college almost did. “Suits keep me studious at all times,” he says. “If I’m wearing a suit, then I know I will study chess.”
The day after his embarrassing loss in Bowling Green – during which he’d shown his thug look – Kasaun, perhaps wanting to dip into reserves of purpose, selected one of the two Brooks Brothers suits he’d purchased from a classified ad in Buy & Sell magazine. He’d paid $100 to a Wall Street guy, not including alterations. It was an understated gray suit with a subtle maroon pinstripe. He wore a white turtleneck. When he walked into the convention hall at the Pan Ams, people didn’t know if he was the same player as the gangsta who’d shown up the day before, Kasaun thought, and he enjoyed that thought.
Throughout the tournament, John would handily win his matches. Alex, who’d first hesitated to cast his lot with BMCC, worked hard for the team. A dull pout on his big head, he played long matches. Prince paced off to the side – occasionally sneaking out for tugs on a Capri. “Is he winning?” Prince would ask. During one game, Alex lost his queen in what appeared to Prince a disastrous turn. But a team member explained it was a very clever trap, and in fact, that win would be written up in the New York Times.
Still, the day Kasaun wore his gray Brooks Brothers, it would be his game that proved crucial. BMCC played third-ranked University of Texas. Alex drew his match. Kasaun realized his win could keep BMCC in first place; his loss would drop the team to fifth, probably an insurmountable hole.
“The only mistakes that count are my mental mistakes,” he told himself as he sat in the conference room, which was silent but for whispering spectators. “Losing, that’s your bonus lesson, that’s what Maurice taught me,” he thought. He knew what had gone wrong before. Chess, the way Kasaun discusses it, seems a course in personality, a challenge in self-control, in inner discipline. “This game is so deep,” he says, “it makes me better at life.”
Chess, it’s sometimes said, is an elegant way of mugging people. Kasaun, suited in the armor of his Brooks Brothers and his studious self, repeated that whatever happened, he’d fight, even if he was down, which he quickly was. Kasaun showed no expression – he’d been schooling himself to do just that. But he thought, “All the games I won, I was losing.”
When Kasaun concentrates, he stares at the board as if it were an animal he cares for but doesn’t trust. There are different ways of being down, he thought. “Don’t panic. To have worse position doesn’t mean you lose,” he told himself. “Make the position ugly, get crazy.” His opponent began making overconfident moves. Kasaun wasn’t threatened, not emotionally threatened, which is what he’d say counted. Soon he had a counterplay. And once again, he found himself with a time advantage, ten minutes to his opponent’s one. If his moves had proved so time-consuming for his opponent, he should stick with his strategy, he reasoned. “Now when I get the advantage,” he says, “I’m tougher because it happened to me in the worst way it ever could.” He settled in to play deliberately this time. “I played as hard as I could,” he says; all the while he seemed to be thinking of something else, Japanese verbs or major chords. He refused to look at his opponent’s clock, which soon expired. Kasaun’s game put BMCC in first place – to stay.