Building Queens in Juvenile Hall with Chess

Building Queens in Juvenile Hall with Chess

Aug 9, 2016, 4:31 AM |
Working to Build Queens: HHCF at Girls Juvenile Hall
By: Adisa, The Bishop

A few weeks ago Hip-Hop Chess Federation (HHCF) was invited to teach some of our Chess and Life Strategies classes to the boys at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center. I was working with kids as young as 13 and as old as 19. It went amazing. I wrote about my first five days in a blog entry I posted a few weeks back.

As soon as it was done I requested an opportunity to work in Unit 6, the girls unit. Educating girls about Chess and Life Strategies has been a core part of the mission of HHCF. These days however, as I see incarcerated girls by daughters age or sharing her physical or personality attributes I’m even more determined to help them. The staff was impressed about my sincerity in sharing chess wisdom with the girls so we got it going. Yesterday was my second time working in Unit 6.

Nothing screams nerd like the glare on these glasses.

Almost half of the first girls I taught had already rotated out. I’m happy to see them free but always sad I did not get more time to teach our lessons. Nevertheless there was a lot of enthusiasm on their faces. Mainly because the ones who were in the first class were excited to play.

One by one the girls walked in the classroom in a straight line. I always make sure to shake their hand and greet them individually with a genuine smile. You’d be surprised at how much a genuine smile can change anyones mood. As you might imagine they were all talking and laughing about whatever is going on in their day. These young ladies are certainly tough, but they never escape sharing their share of giggle and smiles and quirky aspects of their personality. Another thing I noticed is that girls always have much greater classroom respect and focus than any of the boys units. When it’s time to learn, they focus.

“Ladies, please settle down” I asked.  “I need you attention.” The sat straight up and gave me the floor. I’m still trying to gain their trust so I wanted to share some things about me to re engage them on a personal level.

First I showed them a photos of me and Tupac and Eazy way back from my new book Bobby, Bruce & Bam: The Secrets of Hip-Hop Chess. Immediately they asked me one hundred question questions about Pac, Eazy and old school Hip-Hop. They also showed a lot of interest in writing books of their own. I encouraged them to follow through on that vision.

Next I talked to them about Prince Niccolo Machiavelli and how Tupac read Machiavelli and Sun Tzu in jail because he realized he needed to make better decisions. Better decisions than the ones that got him in jail. “Plus all the reading he did is what made it so he could created all the music he did. A lot of today's rappers are one hit wonders because they don’t put anything new into their head. So the songs always sound the same. Tupac was the exact opposite.” One of the Latina girls raised her hand and proudly stated she had read Sun Tzu’s Art of War. The other girls in the class were impressed. So was I.

Then I passed around two books Play Like A Girls by Jennifer Shahade and Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom. I passed it around as I told them the history of the chess queen. I shared the importance of being intelligent young women of action. Some of them were bothered by the title of Shahade’s book. I reminded them that “playing like a girl” was in fact a show of strength and ability. It clicked.

Next I wrote the word queen on the board in big letters. I look around the classroom for a minute to let the silence settle. “What words come to your mind when you see the word queen?” I asked. Without hesitation words rained down on me faster than I could write them on the board:


“Very good. Did you notice not one of you used words like ‘bitch’, ‘hoe’, ‘trick’ or any of these other words y’all tend to use a lot more often than you should? Why is that?” I asked rhetorically.

Without a pause I stated  “Because you know that is what queens are. You know what queens are NOT. From now on, I’m calling Unit 6 the Queen’s Unit. I make no promises to save you. Only you can save you. I’m just asking you to give me a chance to help you cultivate that inner queen.”

“One of my goals is to help you understand that you are queens. The words that came out of your mouth, out of your own minds came from within you. In chess most folks know queens are the most powerful. Many use queens too early in the game. If she runs out into the battlefield without protection she can get cut off and die quickly. She is most dangerous after a solid plan has been put into motion that no one can stop. So let us plan and make you unstoppable. “

I reminded them to never hesitate to express and defend their inner queen. You could see them nodding as they worked to internalize what I was saying.

From there we went straight into reviewing piece names, movement and value. All but two were ready to play. I think they almost every girl took notes from the board on their own accord. The two who didn’t play were a little more shy than the others and watched the others do battle. After about ten minutes of watching the others, the two shy girls got on the computer and tested themselves on different chess puzzles.

Time went by ast. When class was over they were all upset. They passionately argued for more time on the boards “But wait, this game ain’t over. I almost got her! Can we keep the boards? I just need like ten more minutes so I can win.”

I told them I needed the boards for the next class with the boys. They reluctantly put the boards and pieces away. I’m looking forward to games we play next week in the Queen’s Unit. I will keep you all posted as the lessons continue.