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Making moves: How one organization is using chess to build community

Two Black men play chess at a folding table. Behind them are framed pictures of Black leaders and inspirational quotes.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Ernest Levert Jr. (left) plays chess with Dua waNgure (right) at the Cooperative Chess Cultural Center in Columbus. The space is designed to be inclusive of all races, genders and ethnicities.

It’s 4 o’clock on Sunday evening when people start to trickle in to the Cooperative Chess Cultural Center on the east side of Columbus.

John Hoffman is the first to arrive. At 81 years old, he’s a regular.

Then, there’s newbie Lynn Williams, a young woman sporting neon purple and blue hair.

And Dua waNgure, a violinist with the Columbus Symphony who’s somewhat new to the area. He plays the game off and on.

They set up chess boards on folding tables, lining up kings, queens, bishops and knights across green and white checkered spaces.

Here, the expectations for beginners and experts are the same.

“One is you should know the name of your partner. Introduce yourself,” announces Ernest Levert Jr., a local chess teacher and the founder of the Royal Oak Initiative — a social change and mentoring organization centered on the game of chess.

“Number two,” he says, “No one leaves without losing at least one time. So make sure you get a loss before you leave. And number three, share what you know and learn as you go.”

The Cooperative Chess Cultural Center 

As the games begin, chatter about chess blends with Tupac music playing from large speakers in the corner of the room.

“Oftentimes chess spaces are really quiet, really focused, everyone's just locked in,” Levert says. “But we play what I call coffeehouse chess. We're having a conversation. We're playing this game so we connect with each other.”

"We play what I call coffeehouse chess. We're having a conversation. We're playing this game so we connect with each other.”
Ernest Levert Jr.

The Cooperative Chess Cultural Center is for everyone — people of all races, all genders, all chess levels — but it makes a special effort to serve people of color.

Its walls are covered in posters featuring prominent Black figures, motivational quotes and Africentric art.

“We like to center the margins,” Levert says. “We think about people who have been historically oppressed and marginalized and left out. So, we very much center the Black and brown community, specifically people of African descent. We also really try to make the space welcoming for women who haven't always felt welcome in chess spaces.”

The first lesson of chess

When Levert tells people about chess and the cultural center, their response is almost always the same.

“The first thing people say when they hear chess is, ‘Oh, I'm not that good,’ Levert says. “I'm like, ‘I didn't ask you how good you are. I didn't ask you how much money is in your wallet. I didn't ask you what your shoe size is. Why are you volunteering this information? It’s TMI.’”

Levert is trying to shift this culture. He, along with a team of chess mentors, visit schools and community spaces to teach the game of chess.

One of their first lessons?

“You are enough,” Levert says. “You are patient enough, you're smart enough, you're strategic enough, you're brilliant enough. You can do all of these things. And don't let anyone tell you you can't.”

But learning the game of chess takes patience, and that’s another early lesson.

“Everyone starts off as a baby. You don't just get to immediately be good,” Levert says. “That's one of the lessons we're trying to teach our young folks is you can work towards being great at anything.”

Chess as a metaphor

Those lessons are among the first, but they’re certainly not the last chess has to offer, Levert says.

“Learning how to focus, learning how to be patient, learning how to think ahead, these are what everybody always thinks of,” he says. “But for us, we focus more on the community, and some of the challenges we're facing around learning how to lose with grace. We find that a lot of people are having a hard time taking losses because we live in a society that very much only uplifts people as winners and tries to center people like that.”

So, as Levert moves pawns across the board, he’s thinking about more than the game.

“Right now, his knights are attacking my knight. Any two pieces that are looking at each other are attacking each other,” he explains. “You can't attack someone like that without putting yourself in danger. It's this idea of mutuality, right? I can't attack you without hurting myself, which is a really interesting life lesson.”

Lessons like this are reverberating through the room, and that’s exactly Levert’s intention: to strengthen his community one game at a time.

“This is now a part of the culture of the street,” he says. “People are like, ‘Oh yeah, I heard about the chess place.’ You know, people I've met here become friends.”

Eventually, on this Sunday night, the games wrap up. People slowly trickle out the door, left thinking about their next move.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.