Kings and Queens on Alice Street 

Chess, not midnight basketball, keeps these Oakland kids off the streets and thinkin' strategy.

A good opening is necessary. Push out the pawns, control the middle of the board, and protect that king.

"Let's talk pawn structure," Corey Wade tells his audience of six children inside a small conference room on Alice Street in downtown Oakland. Wade is the director of Oakland Chess, a summer program he recently created to bring the thinking man's game to Oakland's inner-city youth. After all, this audience is about as familiar with a chessboard as it is with a golf course. So the idea is to teach the game, have some fun, and if some strategic life lessons also arise in the process, cool.

Wade hangs a fabric chessboard behind him on an easel so everyone can see. He positions a king and a pawn together, then leaves them stranded, vulnerable to the attackers on the opposite side of the board. The goal is to move the lone pawn to the other side so it can be exchanged for the most versatile piece, the queen. But to achieve the mission, the king and pawn need to travel close together, step by step, so neither piece is exposed to attack.

"They're protecting each other," offers Adam Green, an eleven-year-old from West Oakland. "It's like when a mother is pushing her stroller in a parking lot. She doesn't let go of it and push it way out in front of her. She keeps it close. And if a car pulls out, she takes the hit, not the baby."

"Right," Wade says. "They're protecting each other."

A few moves later the king has moved too far in front.

Now what?

"You gonna get jumped," says Samuel, eleven, making the other kids laugh.

This is Maurice Ashley," Wade says, identifying the man now speaking from his laptop computer. "He's the first African-American grand master."

"Wooohaaah," comes the communal response from the table, as a few of the kids are nearly standing in their chairs, leaning toward the laptop.

Ashley is here to tell them that chess, more than most games, challenges a player to consider all the options. Before a move can be made, the player needs to decide what he's trying to accomplish and how best to go about it. He needs to consider the strengths and mobility of all his pieces, and then take action. And once you take your hand off the piece -- that's it, dude. You gotta live with that choice.

Corey Wade made the choice to start Oakland Chess this spring, just before Marcus Foster, the elementary school he taught at in West Oakland, closed down. According to Wade, one reason for the closure was related to cutbacks in Section 8 assistance. So many families in the neighborhood relied on the federal housing subsidy that when the program suffered massive cuts, school enrollment figures plunged. Out of work, but not willing to abandon his contact with urban youth, he came up with the idea of a chess club.

"It was an epiphany moment for me," Wade says, a former high school chess champ himself. "I knew I could make extra money teaching private chess lessons, or I could have a lot of fun teaching an enrichment program like this."

Wade has a habit of taking on such projects. At Foster, he was assigned to teach the especially troubled classrooms that needed attitudinal shaping. His calming demeanor and equal-footing respect for kids comes through, even in the moments when he disciplines his students, who can get restless, and then loud, during discussions on how to "power-up a bishop" or "pin a queen."

Currently, Wade's youngest student is six and his oldest twelve. He rents out a small room at the Malonga Casquelourd Arts Center (known until recently as the Alice Arts Center) and takes in just enough money to cover the rent. He's got fifteen kids signed up, but for the parents who can't afford to pay, no big deal.

A kid like Samuel, who lives two blocks away and just showed up on the first day, is always welcome, gratis.

"Some kids get the biggest thrill out of winning," Wade says, recalling how fun it was at that age to simply say the word "Checkmate!"

"Other kids are drawn into the artistry of chess."

Adam Green is the kid this program was meant for, Wade says. Four weeks ago, Adam says the only thing he knew about the game was that the horse moves in an L-shape, which put him at the head of his class. The sixth-grader attended Marcus Foster, and with summer on the horizon and lots of lazy downtime lurking behind it, Wade asked his student if he wanted to try something new.

To get here four days a week, Adam takes a thirty-minute bus ride on the 72, which drops him off at 14th and Broadway. He likes to write stories and play soccer, but when he starts middle school next year he probably won't go out for the more traditional team sports -- if, indeed, the school offers any.

"Chess actually forces thinking into the process of playing a game," Adam says, while taking on Samuel across the table. "It keeps me thinking, 'What am I going to do next?'"

As Wade says, some kids just take to the board and "see" the future moves. Some kids naturally own a presence at the table, and you can tell in the slightest traits -- the way they glide the pieces across the squares or gracefully tap at the time clock -- that they already understand the environment and feel comfortable in it.

Other kids push pawns up their noses.

But Adam has the presence, Wade says. His growth rate has been startling to watch. As evidence, during one game last week, Adam opened the first seven moves as cleanly as Bobby Fischer: middle pawns up front, knights out on the wings, king tucked behind a V formed by a bishop and three pawns in the corner.

After the opening, Adam gave up some ground to his much older competitor and, in a forehead-slapping moment, lost his queen. After the game, Adam took a lunch break downstairs and Wade commented, "It's amazing how quickly he's picked this up. His openings are as good as anyone's. ... It's the middle game that could use some work, but that's true for all of us."

I hear people say, 'It's just a pawn,'" Wade says. He's lecturing to his class, with his hanging chessboard behind him. He's a little flip, which the kids find humorous. "'No big deal. I can lose one. Doesn't matter.'

"But think about it another way. If you're at the end of the game, and you're down to your final pieces, what would you rather have: A bishop? A horse? A rook? Or a pawn? Which is the most important?"

The room is quiet. It's the silence of children's minds numerating their options, listing their choices, running into mental brick walls, then bouncing back, hunting for a solution.

"Think carefully," Wade says. "It's your move."

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