Success Academy Bed-Stuy Middle School took second place in the Under 14 Division at the All-Girls National Chess Championship in Chicago last weekend. The team beat eight competitor schools including prestigious Dalton School and Chapin School. Although diligent preparation emboldens the skill necessary for mastery of chess fundamentals, playing on the national level brings its own unique set of challenges.
Chess, by and large, is dominated by players raised in privileged, upper-class socioeconomic environments––especially at the national stage. Prestigious private-preparatory schools, such as the Upper East Side’s, The Dalton School, and The Chapin School, are famed for producing prodigious talent, year after year, effectively outnumbering young people of color from inner city public schools.
Stark racial and gender divides are commonplace upon entering the hall of any chess tournament. With over 1,500 grandmasters in history, only three have been of African American descent, and only 2% of these chess grandmasters have been female. Even when considering the prestigious, annual World Chess Championship, originating in 1886, a woman has never won.
Inherently, coaching young students in SA Bed-Stuy––where 94 percent of the students are children of color from low-income households in disadvantaged neighborhoods––leads itself to an uphill battle from the start, but nonetheless, a battle that SA chess teacher, Tyrell Harriott, and SA chess director, Jerald Times, valiantly lead everyday.
Regarding the difficulties, Jerald, former instructor for six years at The Dalton School, said, “The private sector domination stems from what I believe are four issues, mostly with availability of resources: One, early exposure to the game. Those kids are introduced at four, five, six, years old, exposing them earlier than others. Two, chess is a part of these schools’ curriculum, connecting it to their Math and English lessons. Three, the ability to afford private lessons. This is huge, the biggest separation factor between private and public sector institutions. Four, the parents of these private students can bring their kids to international tournaments and get exposure against the best players. Our kids are basically playing catch up.”
If the SA Bed-Stuy Middle School girls have proven one thing though, it’s that Manhattan’s prestigious prep schools and expensive private mentorship are no prerequisite to competing and thriving at the nation’s highest level.
Following her seventh place finish at the All-Girls National Championship, Jessica Hyatt, an eighth grade student at SA Bed-Stuy Middle School, improved her ranking into the top 10 black women chess players in the U.S., and raised her rating to 1,904 points, growing ever closer to the 2,200 point barrier. If Jessica achieves a 2,200 rating, she would become the first African American female chess master, a goal that her teacher, Harriott, says could be pivotal to “bringing black and brown kids to the stage.”
Jessica, continuously proving herself as one of the brightest chess players in the country, recently took first-place honors at the New York State Chess Championship. Not only is Jessica defying statistics that display rampant underrepresentation from young African American girls, but she symbolizes the possibility of change and a new future of diversity in chess, both in the local Brooklyn community, and around the United States.
However, Jessica wasn’t the only highlight performer for Success Academy’s Bed-Stuy Middle School. While many other students in Kindergarten struggle learning their first letters, Geah Jean Baptiste was introduced to chess at SA Bed-Stuy 1 Elementary School, lighting a spark that ignited a fruitful talent. Now in eighth grade, Geah, had a fantastic fourth place finish, culminating in a dramatic last round match, at the National Championship.
When asked about the most touching moment of the weekend Harriott said gleefully, “The last night. Jessica and Ghea had both won their games, both had four points, and both had a chance to play the top-ranked person at the tournament. I told them if you guys really come out strong tomorrow, whoever is going to be the national champ will have to fight and go through you first, so you will have your moment.”
In a room of 300 young girls, focused as ever, rows of tables lined to the back wall; complete silence, apart from the sound of chess pieces clanking on squared spaces, filled the tense room. SA Bed-Stuy Middle School emerged from beyond the trophies, bringing back hope from Chicago, to their homes in Brooklyn. A hope that others can see someone like them grace the podium, or even, with just enough practice, themselves equally. Harriott, optimistic about the future, exclaimed, “Less and less black and brown girls are feeling intimidated. The feeling that they can compete is an incredible transformative experience.”
All images courtesy of Success Academy Bed-Stuy Middle School.
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