LISTEN: 64 Squares in the Cipher
“I don’t play either side or the king, I play God / Heavenly wars played out on hand carved boards / Rakaa’s many moves ahead, learned to sacrifice to win / Angels share the tables with the ones that lived a life of sin.” - Rakaa Iriscience, 64 Squares in the Cipher
People close to me know that my chess-playing skills are nowhere near that of a master. My friend once rightly joked “You are easily the worst chess player to ever make the cover of Chess Life magazine.” He’s right though. My game is at the level of a guy who likes chess, but never really pursued it on a competitive level. My addiction to the game came from the philosophy I got from the outcomes of the games I played and watched. That, and the fun I have irrespective of the outcome.
For some intermediate and advanced chess players this seems to be a source of deep frustration. No matter what I do, or the members of this organization there is constant complaining about my rating, or the ratings of the rappers, MMA fighters or jiu jitsu players who support HHCF. I think the thing many of the chess players from this group lack is a greater understanding of the game on a social and cultural level. They are so obsessed with the game they love that they see any attempt to “alter” its true nature as an offense to something they are deeply passionate about and skilled at playing. In their obsession however, they miss the cultural essence of chess on a global scale. The international appeal of HHCF confuses so many “serious” chess players. So let me share my vision more fully for those unclear on thee concept. Let me also say that I realize this is not an easy concept to grasp and I don’t fault anyone for not knowing the converging histories of Hip-Hop, chess and martial arts in America. But I lived this, with millions of other people, so, I know its real and I have seen the fusion enlighten and inspire.
I think I saw something that said a little more than half a billion humans can play chess around the world. Now sit back and think to yourself, “How many of those people are active competitors who plan on become masters?” The answer after a few seconds should be a resounding “Almost none!” People love the game of chess because its fun.The games you play with your brother before leaving to school. The game your grandmother won that made you cry when you were 9. One night my wife and I were given a free weekend at a lavish hotel in the silicon valley. We were going to go to a restaurant, hit the club and stay out till dawn. That is what we initially told ourselves. We spent hours of it sitting in a hot tub locked in 23-hour chess battle on the 64 squares. The water got cold. We took the game to the main room and stayed up till after 1am trying to win—that’s the chess I’m about. That’s the chess this planet enjoys. So few can remember if granny was breaking out the Kings Indian on them. Nobody remembers if they used the Sicilian Dragon on their opponent in that lunch hour. They just remember the fun. The purity of the fun and personal connectivity in that moment means more than any sheet of algebraic notation.
At the same time, let me say without reservation that if it were not for those that seek to take chess to the highest heights from a competitive and academic perspective, the casual players of the world would have nothing to aspire towards. Players like Magnus Carlsen, Viswanathan Anand, Jennifer Shahade, Irina Krush, Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley are the living cornerstones we stand upon even when we don’t know it. They must all be properly acknowledged for what they have achieved. It is no small thing.
Nevertheless, I’ve played games with Hip-Hop stars Casual, RZA, Traxamillion, Amir Sulaiman I will never forget (I often came up short). One time Big Rich and Balance brought some husky Russian dude to play me at a restaurant. It was electric. This summer I played an amazing game with a young San Jose rapper named Society. It was such a positionally close game II named that match The Battle of Tai Chi. Our positions were so mutually intense and the pressure so high, we were both sweating and thinking and rethinking our moves. It was like a match between Tai Chi warriors in a Jet Li film. The HHCF tournament at Rock The Bells ended with a street dude from Compton challenging a classically trained player who had just ethered everybody and the dude from Compton won. Off the hook. You can’t make these things up. It’s real life, its real chess and just because the players or fans can’t list the name of every opening or endgame strategy does not make it less legitimate.
At Hiero Day 2013 in Oakland, HHCF had a table of chessboards set up right next to the All Tribes Zulu Nation booth. After Ronnie Lee and I set up the tables, we just walked away and it automatically was packed with players. Boyfriends lost to their girlfriends, strangers clashed leaving fallen opponents lost in mental anguish and some just passed by to learn the game. I played nasty battle with rapper/educator Jahi. We had been trying to catch up to one another for years (life gets in the way, things fall apart) but on this day we vowed to play. It was stressful for both of us. Crowds swelled to get a peek at the tactical exchange. When it was over, we were all laughing and talking about opportunities taken, missed and lost. Then an Ethiopian college girl walked up and asked me how much it cost to play. I’m like, “Chess is free.” She just nodded and pointed as if to say “Move then.” I knew she was a killer from her question. She came after me like the blood of Queen Nzinga pulsed in her veins. I was a goner for sure. Then, daybreak! A missed opportunity to check me put me in a position where I had to check her repeatedly into a mate or perish. I pulled it off, but my mind was jello after. I needed a sandwich and some ice tea to recover from those matches. Whoever said chess is only a game for your brain, surely lied. Your whole body feels the stress.
I saw rap producer Ronnie Lee go head to head with some Latino street dude just as my game ended. Ronnie is a way stronger player than I am. This dude came in and started throwing pieces at Ronnie so hard (it was his last game of the day) and Ronnie was positionally on the ropes. Slowly though, the guys aggression caused him to poke holes in his own structure trying to eat Ronnies pieces. I saw him snatch a piece of Ronnies with a grin that soon dropped his jaw. The guys knight was now too far away to protect his king. He knew Ronnie was going to ride his castes down the H file and end it. He shook his head, laid his kind down. “Good game, man” he said with a smile and shook Ronnies hand. Thats the chess we seek to promote. That human chess.
Observing the landscape of the jiu jitsu and in the Hip-Hop world, I find people of similar mind states. They are so in love with the purity of jiu jitsu, Rap or b-boying that they cannot see the connections to chess and respect it lightly because of a line from RZA or Jay Z or 50 Cent. I have said from the beginning that this organization is not for everyone. Not from a place of arrogance or exclusion, but, from a place of intellectual insight. The self-discovery that comes from playing chess, listening to Rap music and training in jiu jitsu and studying the philosophies from those paths has already altered how we see ourselves, humanity and art. Who knows what this fusion will unveil to us through consistent exchanges of intellectual, artistic and physical improvements?
You gotta have an open mind to roll with HHCF. If you are locking into the path of the 64 squares only- the HHCF may not for you. If your love for the gentle art or MMA is too narrow to see anything else- I encourage you to keep walking. If you are all about your rap ciphers but you can’t see past the 5 elements of Hip-Hop- HHCF might not be your thing. We are an organization of people who know they are not one trick pony’s. We know that we are all connected.
This fusion of art and logic, of mental and physical combat was meant to unite people within. Then that unity should flow outward their local and global community. It was meant to unify the minds of young boys and girls to inspire them. We hope to enable them to be able to manifest whatever vision of themselves resonates within their heart. That is it. So if you want to know who the members of the HHCF are- look out your window. Now look in the mirror. Welcome to the HHCF. For more information on what we do and how we do it, visit . Educators who would like an HHCF branch in your area please email firstname.lastname@example.org