By: Adisa Banjoko and Grandmaster Maurice Ashley
I don’t play either side or the king, I play God/ Heavenly wars played out on hand carved boards –Rakaa Iriscience, 64 Squares in the Cipher
Thinking Like A King
About seven years ago I was speaking at San Francisco Juvenile Hall talking to teen boys about journalism and being an author as a career choice. I was promoting my first independent book release Lyrical Swords: Hip-Hop and Politics in the Mix. Despite often connecting early and easy with kids this talk was crashing and burning like no other talk I had given before. I glanced in my backpack and remembered there was a chessboard in there. I held the board up and asked, “Who here knows how to play chess?”
To my astonishment, about 75% of the room raised their hand. “OK, that’s good!” I yelled out with a smile. “But who here is the best?! Only keep your hand up if you know you are the best.” Only a few hands went down. “Alright here is what’s going to happen” I declared. “We are going to have a tournament. Whoever wins gets a book. Circle up, let’s do this.”
The energy in the room became electric. A White kid in the hall raised his status in the pecking order of the hall by teaching about the nature of knight movement. The ultimate winner was an obese kid who others teased initially because of his size. I saw racial and other social barriers fall right in front of me, because of chess. The entire scene blew my mind.
I asked myself, “How did these kids know so much about chess? An avalanche of rap lyrics from Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, and EPMD collapsed on my brain simultaneously. Hip-Hop gave me the answer. Then the faces of Samuel Jackson in the movie Fresh and Laurence Fishburne’s smile in Searching for Bobby Fischer flashed in my minds eye. As I exited the concrete hallways with the flickering fluorescent lights strobing the stairwell, I said “This is something. This is something big.” Within the next year, I founded the Hip-Hop Chess Federation (HHCF) nonprofit 501(c)3 to teach chess and life strategies to at-risk youth. We use martial arts philosophy to reinforce the lessons that rap and chess teach.
Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and Rugged Monk of Black Knights (R) playing Chessmaster Emory Tate (L) and others
When we first created the HHCF, many people in the Hip-Hop and the chess world laughed at us- openly. We were ok with that. Because we knew what they knew, plus I knew what they didn’t know. None of them knew that rap music has written about the game of chess and its philosophical value more than any other form of music on earth. For some, it might easy to default to the Wu-Tang Clan’s rise as the apex of this fusion between rap and chess. Yet to start and stop it from Enter the 36 Chambers denies the full scope of the relationship between the game of kings and Hip-Hop.
Today people try and pretend chess in America was always a cultural sideshow. As if chess was never in the mainstream minds of the people. This is not true. The truth is, when Brooklyn’s own Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in September of 1972, chess was huge. Those games were aired on PBS and the network had it’s highest ratings ever! In November of 1973 a young gang leader from The Bronx named Afrika Bambaataa founded the Universal Zulu Nation to cultivate Hip-Hop and promote peace throughout the city and the world. At that same time the movies from the Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers were taking over America. The strategy ideas from Kung-Fu, jiu-jitsu, Taosim and Buddhism started to spread into the streets of NY. A perfect cultural storm was brewing.
Street chess games played on the corner, the parks and those played in prisons would ultimately serve as the glue between these subcultures. Neither chess, nor Hip-Hop would be the same again.
Chess gave Hip-Hop political, social and spiritual symbolism for metaphors no other game has given them. Right now without thinking too hard I can quote lyrics from artists like Wu-Tang Clan, Papoose, Jay Z, Apathy, Ka and Drake that mention chess. If I ask you to show me their rock, country, jazz or classical music equivalents- you can’t do it. The rap explosion of the late 80’s and early 90’s was framed by a largely ignorant, fearful mainstream media. All of the attacks on rap for being violent, misogynistic, and promoting ignorance prove that we’ve often been having the wrong conversation about true content of rap and its potential as a teaching tool. RZA, Will Smith, 50 Cent and others represent a growing number of chess playing rappers who have amazing business minds of the industry. So its not just good for the art its good for business.
Reflections of the Grandmaster
At first look, it might seem strange that there may be any substantial connections between the world’s most intellectually revered board game and the dynamic musical art form that is Hip-Hop. Chess, an ancient practice over 1500 years old,
often today conjures up images of old men on park benches. You imagine them smoking pipes while sitting for hours at a time pondering their next moves.To blend that high-brow image with the effervescent rush of inventive lyrics, pulsating, at times rebellious beats can seem hard to bring together. But that is only if you are looking at the surface.
Grandmaster Maurice Ashley giving play-by-play coverage of Sinquefield Cup
And yet, the stereotypical differences that seem to create a cavern between chess and hip hop soon wilt under closer inspection. For one, with the advent of the digital age and ready-made computer instruction, today’s chess is a game for the young.
The best chess players in the world are under 30, and Grandmasters are more and more routinely being crowned before their 15th birthday. In the U.S., the face of the new chess has also become decidedly more youthful, urban, and hip. Public school teams are represented in full glory every year at national scholastic chess championships, with the most accomplished team in the last ten years, I.S. 318, coming straight out of Brooklyn.
Even the slow grandfatherly pace no longer holds water. The most popular form of chess, which can be viewed at any online chess site at 24 hours a day, is Blitz Chess, where players compete with less than five minutes to complete all of their moves lest they lose the game on time. At that speed, chess becomes a blend
of sophisticated pattern recognition, intense focus and spirited improvisation.
Watching two plays bang out moves with precious few seconds on the clock can thrill and hypnotize as much as Mike Relm or DJ QBert slicing up a turn-table.
Magnus Carlsen is putting a youthful face on the future of competitive chess.
While chess can be coldly analytic, it’s the perpetually creative and individualized styles that separates the players at the very top. World Champion Magnus Carlsen plays in the style of Common. He does not care to insert himself into the battle with a whole lot of ego. Instead slowly enveloping his opponents with subtle ideas and smooth syncopations they succumb to his skill and assuredness thatsomehow always seems totally effortless. On the other hand, Hikaru Nakamura,
America’s top player, mimics NWA with his gangsta’ style. He comes straight for the jugular with vicious blow after vicious blow, to eviscerate his opponentswith killer movement. He’s not giving a damn what the world thinks about his overly aggressive style and brash personality. It may say something about the nature of life and competition that when the two face off, the calm and cool Carlsen almost always endures. Stylish doesn’t mean a lack of determination.
American chess player Hikaru Nakamura’s attacking style of play is likened to N.W.A’s aggressive rap style.
It should then come as less of a surprise that musicians have embraced the art form of chess as a means of relaxation and creative expression. From Wu-Tang clan to Wynton Marsalis, Will Smith, Madonna, Jay-Z and Bon, the game has alwaysattracted artists across the royalty of the musical spectrum. Filled with what seems like infinite possibilities, chess has a way of captivating an imaginative mind insearch of deliciously unpredictable variety. The visual artist and sometime musician, Marcel DuChamp, quit art temporarily to play chess as a career. In 1968, Duchamp and musician John Cage appeared together at a concert entitled “Reunion”, playing a game of chess and composing music by triggering a series of photoelectric cells underneath the chessboard. They are not the only ones chess has inspired with its mysteries.Like music, chess has gone through its evolutionary stages as well. From the
Romantic Era, scientific period, Hypermodern period, to the digital age where more and more greed is good- chess continues to change with the times. Hip-Hop has gone through similar evolutions. Look at the old school lyrical party styles of the Sugar Hill Gang, to the intellectual flow of Rakim to the rage of Eminem rap has changed significantly. The science of the DJ’s mixing and scratching methods, graffiti, Bboy’ing and all the branches of Hip-Hop dance have also grown immeasurably from the early 1970’s.
Despite threats of its demise, chess always rises back up to enthrall a new
generation tantalized by its complexity. This is probably in large part to mano a mano engagement, and evergreen ideas. Its tentacles have spread all across the globe; over 180 countries competed in the recently concluded Chess Olympiad in Norway, proving that the game is an international phenomenon. Those who predicted an early death for hip hop can go
check out the rappers Subliminal in Israel, Hime in Japan, and Emicida from Brazil to
see that real art never dies, it simply infects another generation and is reborn.
The fusion of Hip-Hop and chess is beautiful and dynamic on many levels. There is a mountain of still untapped potential in this artistic and intellectual union. The amount of lyrics about chess in the rap world can be cool, or dark and often times very inspirational. However, if todays MC’s are really going to take the fusion to the next level they are going to have to raise the bar on their knowledge of the game. Read The Immortal Game by David Shenk, Chess Bitch by Jennifer Shahade and Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom. After reading about the Black Moorish conquerors of Spain taking the game to Europe, algebraic notation, we should see rappers naming champions other than Bobby Fischer. There is still much more lyrical work and history breakdowns to be done! There are still new graffiti murals and DJ tracks to be made. I look forward to hearing and seeing more from the chess and rap community as this beautiful phenomenon continues to grow.
Adisa Banjoko is the Founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation. They fuse music, chess and martial arts to promote unity, strategy and nonviolence. Maurice Ashley is the first Black Grandmaster in chess and host of Millionaire Chess in Las Vegas Oct. 9th. Adisa Banjoko will be at the World Chess Hall of Fame’s Living Like Kings exhibit which runs October 9th 2014 to April 26th 2015 in St. Louis Missouri.