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    “Guys, you gotta know your tactics,” Corbin Seavers says on a Saturday morning in February at the Louisville Urban League headquarters on West Broadway. The West Louisville Chess Club coach talks strategy with the handful of kids huddled around him, while others arrive with their parents and sign in. A girl clutching a Barbie doll walks in, and Seavers has a boy sit down with her and introduce her to the pieces and board.

    Seavers advises the group on strategy. “Where are you going, baby? E7?” he says to a girl. “I don’t know about that. What do y’all think about that? Was that a good move? Talk to me!” A couple kids mumble some answers. “No! She’s gonna lose the queen for nothing! She should have just went ahead and took that rook. That was free money.”

    Seavers, who teaches at various schools, gives private chess lessons and plays throughout town, founded the West Louisville Chess Club in 2016 when the Urban League approached him about starting one at their site. The club meets twice a month and hosts family chess nights every few weeks. Now 30 members and growing, the club has competed at various local and regional tournaments. Sam Johnson, director of youth development and education at the Urban League, says the club teaches decision-making, discipline and patience, which fits into the nonprofit’s overall mission to “correct inequities on a systemic level.” Plus, kids can earn scholarships for chess.

    “I didn’t know chess was so big,” says Malik Emre, father of two teens in the club. “When I grew up, it was checkers.” He says his family will play at home but that his son always wins. “I mean, not just beating me, whooping my A-S-S,” Emre says. “(Chess is) a thinking-man’s game. It’s a little bit like life.”

    A couple dozen kids have paired up at boards, fists on cheeks as they contemplate next moves. Seavers sets a veggie platter, apples, oranges and peach pies on a table and calls the kids in for a chat that resembles a locker room pep talk. “Let me talk about the Queen City Classic,” Seavers begins, referring to the regional tournament in Cincinnati this month. “First year we went there as a team, we got stomped. Silly. Second year, you guys dramatically increased — it was great. And, of course, we got a first-place team trophy for grades four through six under 800 (rating),” he says.

    That accomplishment last spring is what caught Gov. Matt Bevin’s attention, leading him to pay the club a visit, congratulate the kids and declare in a video he posted to Twitter that the chess club is “not something you necessarily would have thought of when you think of this section of town.” Many responded with criticism, calling it tone deaf and attempting to school him on the varied interests of west Louisville residents. Not only that, says the Urban League’s Johnson, but several west Louisville community centers, schools and parks also host chess. So while Seavers refers to the club as “the monster” because of its size, chess is nothing new to the area.

    “That was my son (Bevin) took a photo with,” Emre says of the controversy. “I was kind of mad about that. I felt like the governor, he used something positive for a photo op.” Seavers says he was disappointed the media focused on the governor rather than the club’s accomplishments. “Not only did we perform well on the board, but (the kids’) behavior was exemplary. You don’t always see that at chess tournaments. Some of these kids are buttheads. Not ours,” he says.

    Continuing his pre-tournament pep talk, Seavers says, “It’s a long day. Get a good night’s rest beforehand. Stay away from the sugary stuff. Now, West Louisville Chess Club emphasizes sportsmanship, we emphasize character. I don’t care — never lie. I don’t care what the result is. Don’t do it. Guys, you’re gonna lose in chess. (World chess champion) Bobby Fischer…lost as many games as he won. Don’t get upset about losing. And, guys: We don’t lose. We only learn or we win.”

    Born in Boston and having grown up in Louisville since age 11, Seavers started playing chess as a kid with his father. Colleges later recruited him, he says, but he was more interested in girls than chess at the time, so he stopped playing until his daughter was young. “I kept saying to myself, man, I really want her to get a math-based career, and I saw that there’s so few women in math-based careers,” he says. An old college buddy of his was teaching math and told him, “Corbin, I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if the math is helping the chess or the chess is helping the math, but the top math students are usually the top chess students, and vice versa.” Seavers smacks his hands together and says, “Done deal!”

    “They have phenomenal tournaments out East,” Seavers continues. “A thousand-plus (competitors) is nothing. But on your right hand with two broken fingers you can count the number of black students you see there. My daughter, I’ll never forget — when she was tournament-active, she would flip out if she saw another black girl there. That’s how rare she was.” His daughter is now a freshman at Northern Kentucky University. “She showed me her math book,” Seavers says. “It was like showing me Greek.”

    The underrepresentation is not lost on the Urban League, which has hosted all-girls summer chess camps through the club and is sending up to six athletes to the all-girls national championship in Chicago in April. Urban League president and CEO Sadiqa Reynolds has been pushing for a national tournament. “If Sadiqa says we’re gonna go, we’re gonna go,” Seavers says. “I want to see them offered chess scholarships.” He mentions the hardships some of the kids face, such as not having the financial means to attend a tournament. “I’m under a lot of financial stress,” Seavers says, “a lot of family pressure. But when I’m here it’s like all that stuff is gone. They teach me resilience, man. They teach me tenacity.”

    At the club meeting, Seavers has the kids gather around a board and walk through a game that one of the kids played at last year’s Queen City Classic, similar to how a basketball team would watch game footage.When asked about chess and competing, the players aren’t much for words. As volunteer coach Steve Faulkner points out: “It’s a game that you play in your mind. Your pieces do the talking.” (He wears a shirt that reads, in part: Life is chess, not checkers.) Thirteen-year-old Bacari Ellis, who is the team captain for his grade level and was on last year’s winning team, offers a piece of advice: “Never give up.”

    “When you start getting behind,” Seavers tells the kids, “and you lose your rook or you lose your queen, that’s when you really need to calm down, ’cause that’s when you start doing dumb stuff. Black moves DC5. White moves NF3. Black moves QF7. Then QF6. White castles. White’s doing what? Playing solid chess. And in playing solid chess, he stopped that four-move checkmate, right?”

    This originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Chess for Success." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Mickie Winters, mickiewinters.com

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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