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Check Yourself: The Hip Hop Chess Federation Makes History with their First Annual Chess Kings Invitational

By Zoneil Maharaj, Photos by John Coynefeatures
Oct 24, 2007 - 9:39 PM

hhcf.gifWebsite: Hip Hop Chess Federation's

A little girl plays a game of chess at the First Annual Chess Kings Invitational on Oct. 13, 2007.

RZA would take home this elaborately designed championship belt after competing in a celebrity tournament with hip hop and martial arts luminaries.

Rakaa Iriscience of Dilated Peoples, Dr. Daaim Shabazz, RZA and chessmaster Josh Waitzkin speak on a panel, moderated by HHCF co-founder Adisa Banjoko (far right), discussing how hip hop, chess and martial arts have influenced them.

Event goers play against each other during casual play.

RZA hangs out and talks to fans before speaking on the panel.

Emma Bentley, 11, is the chess world champion for girls under 11. She was looking forward to schooling DJ Q-Bert in a one-minute bullet match but due to his absence, she played against Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert Ralek Gracie and won.

A chess player thinks long and hard before making his strategic move.

Hip hop’s dirty secret is out the bag…cats is nerds, yo! On Oct 13, the Hip Hop Chess Federation held the nerdiest event in hip hop history, and the coolest event in chess history: the First Annual Chess Kings Invitational. The event featured a panel discussion on hip hop, chess and martial arts, an eight-man celebrity chess tournament and a 16-student scholarship tournament with $10,000 divided between participants.

While T.I. was getting arrested for buying three machine guns and two silencers (you know, just in case he starts beefing with the National Guard), RZA and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, along with Rakaa Iriscience of Dilated Peoples, Amir Sulaiman, Paris, Casual and others were breaking down social stereotypes by doing what rap cats with inflated egos might consider a loss of street cred—competing in a tournament of intellect and mingling with chess masters Josh Waitzkin and 11-year-old Emma Bentley.

“I think this was a very historic day. People overuse that word in hip hop; cats often say, ‘We’re making history, son.’ This time, there’s no doubt,” said Adisa Banjoko, who co-founded the Hip Hop Chess Federation with friend Leo Libiran, co-founder of hip hop portal StateOfMinds.com. “Cats were giving away money. Dudes were educating the children; a lot of times cats are confusing children. There are so many levels, literal and physical and philosophical in which this was a historical moment.”

“When was the last time rappers competed solely on a plane of intelligence?” Banjoko said.

I attended their first event back in February as one of the very few members of the press. It was held in a small conference room in the San Jose Public Library. The turnout was low, about 50 heads, but with a wild idea, $63 and grassroots promotion, that first event grew into an international movement, one backed by the biggest names in the hip hop, chess and martial arts communities.

Back in February, the HHCF was still an embryo and not taken seriously by some, i.e. library staff. Because the event ran literally a few minutes longer than scheduled, those in attendance, mostly comprised of minority youth, were kicked out by security from a building named after Martin Luther King, Jr.

It was a harmless chess tournament, but “hip hop” carries a negative connotation because of the images popularly portrayed in the mainstream media. But hip hop ain’t all guns and drugs, stunts and blunts, money, hoes and clothes. For every artist who’s tried to tell this to the masses, there are twice as many who are more than happy to push these negative stereotypes. The HHCF made it loud and clear at the Chess Kings Invitational that there is an intelligent side to the hip hop community which embraces the strategic and intellectual teachings of the chess and martial arts communities.

Only eight months after HHCF’s inaugural event, 50 attendees grew to 500, too big for a library conference room. Instead, it was held in San Francisco Design Center Galleria, a luxurious, chic and swanky multi-level event center topped off with food provided by Piccadilly Catering, a company owned by DJ Pam the Funktress of the Coup.

And that $63 Banjoko and Libiran started out with in February? After investing a few hundred more into the second Hip Hop, Chess and Life Strategies in May, they received a $70,000 sponsorship from game developer Ubisoft.

“The essence of it hasn’t changed, just the numbers have,” Banjoko said. “We wanted to spend $70,000 and make it look like $100,000, and have people leave feeling like a million.”

The people were definitely enjoying themselves, especially the kids.. Leo Lopez, 17, of John O’ Connell High School in San Francisco won first place in the scholarship tournament, taking home $1,500 from Ubisoft and an iPod from Chesspark.

“It feels great, I feel lucky,” he said right after the win, admitting he doesn’t even play chess that often. The rest of the kids who competed won between $100 and $750. Each received a pair of boots from Timberland, a copy of Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning book and a copy of the latest Chessmaster computer game.

“If there would be more events like this, it’d be cool,” Leo said.

RZA was equally excited. After an intense tournament between hip hop and martial arts luminaries, RZA won an elaborate title belt, designed by the people who make the UFC and WWE championship belts. He stood in the center of the stage with the shiny mass raised above his head, as if he’d just pinned John Cena for the WWE title at Wrestlemania.

Honestly, I had my doubts when I first heard the concept. Hip hop is often used as a gimmick to push a product, message or faux-movement. Think Sprite, any anti-drug/safe-sex PSA or the Diddy-endorsed ’04 Vote or Die campaign. Though some of these efforts are noble, they’re easily written off as novelty when authenticity isn’t felt.

I remember covering the Urban Country Club held in San Francisco in 2005, a failed attempt to merge hip hop culture and the exclusive golf community; a panel discussion featured RZA and PGA golfer Walter Morgan. It was contrived and forced, whereas the community of hip hop, chess and martial arts lovers already existed, there just wasn’t a place to interact and exchange ideas.

“People who liked hip hop and chess weren’t kicking it with martial artists and vice versa,” Banjoko said. “We didn’t create anything but a neutral venue. The people were already there, and that’s who showed up.”

Banjoko made the connection between hip hop and chess as a journalist in the 80s, noting every chess reference in songs since. He devoted a chapter in his last book, Lyrical Swords Vol. 2: Westside Rebellion, to hip hop, chess and martial arts featuring interviews with RZA, GZA and international chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley. Banjoko and RZA developed a relationship that led to his appearance at the second Hip Hop, Chess and Life Strategies. That event won his support and he’s now the director of development for the Hip Hop Chess Federation.

“I love playing the game, but I love spreading this culture,” RZA said in between signing autographs for fans. “Hip hop ain’t only a ghetto thing. We got class and finesse.”

Brian Zisk, co-founder and strategic adviser of Chesspark, an international online chess community sees the movement getting much bigger.

“So many people say, ‘Oh, it’s big!’ but they don’t see the upward progression. This will seem small in a few years,” he said. “Things like this will pop up all over the world and it’s really going to make some change.”

The HHCF recently launched a European office based in Romania. They’ve received invitations to hold events in Malaysia, Spain, Sweden and other destinations across the globe. But the organization wants to make sure it’s effective in the U.S. before branching out.

“The U.S. is our home. If the kids in the ghetto here aren’t enriched by what we do, then there’s no reason in exporting it,” Banjoko says. “If they’re not seeing new options in life then I’d feel like a fraud by setting up events in Europe just for publicity. These are the proving grounds.”

*The next Hip Hop Chess Federation event will be the Chess Queens Invitational held in February in Oakland. For more information, visit www.hiphopchessfederation.org


Zoneil Maharaj is the editor-in-chief of Oh Dang! He is a afraid of heights, so he may never climb off his high horse. Send him love letters at zoneilsucks@ohdangmag.com.

John Coyne is just a Jersey cat doing that photography thing in the Bay Area. He's got a love for the grit and grime of the city and he's out to capture the beauty of the streets to the best of his ability. See more of his work at: http://flickr.com/photos/jjcphotography/

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