Hip-Hop Chess Federation

By Gene Ching

Belt photo: The Hip Hop Chess Federation Championship Belt copywrite 2007 Martin Rochin.
photo: The Hip Hop Chess Federation Championship Belt ? 2007 Martin Rochin.
"We're right here at the Hip Hop Chess Federation's First Annual Tournament of Kings Invitational - RZA and GZA - we're all out here to spread the hip hop culture with martial arts, you know what I mean?" RZA, the leader of the multi-platinum rap group Wu-Tang Clan is always eloquent with his razor-sharp tongue, but do you know what he means? Hip hop, chess and martial arts? Let's rewind to the start. Enter the 1st Annual Chess Kings Invitational, an unprecedented event held by the Hip Hop Chess Federation. On October 13th, 2007, martial artists, chess masters and hip hop stars converged at the San Francisco Design Center's Galleria to raise $10,000 in educational scholarships. The event attracted a diverse array of celebrities like MMA champion Ralek Gracie and Ultimate Fighting Champion Jeff "The Snowman" Monson, to musicians and poets like Paris, Amir Sulaiman, Casual and Sunspot Jonz, to chess luminaries like Dr. Alan Kirshner and Daaim Shabazz. Competition was fierce with a scholastic tournament, a celebrity tournament and even a one-minute bullet match between eleven-year-old world chess champion Emma Bentley and Ralek Gracie (Bentley had the champ in check in 30 seconds). The event attracted the attention of SPIN and the ROLLING STONE and is just starting to turn heads in the martial arts.

HHCF cofounder Adisa Banjoko explains, "What we did is we brought the greatest martial artists and the greatest rappers we could find to do battle on 64 squares. What we do is we combine chess, music and martial arts to promote unity, strategy and non-violence. We are basically dispelling stereotypes of all three subcultures under one roof and it's a beautiful thing." Banjoko began his martial journey as an escrimador, but confesses he wasn't good at it. A friend directed him to Brazilian Jujitsu. As Banjoko puts it, "He realized how horrible I was and said 'This guy needs help.'" He studied under Ralph Gracie and eventually earned a blue belt under Charles Gracie. The inspiration for the HHOP came to him nearly four decades ago, but the time wasn't right. "The problem was that I personally wasn't mature enough, hip hop wasn't mature enough and martial arts wasn't mature enough at the time," reflects Banjoko. "I think that this event is a product of divine timing. There are enough people in each of the respective subcultures who see the connections, respect the connections, and also, most importantly, have a love for the youth and want to share that, for this to come together."

Wu-Tang Clan connected kung fu and hip hop over a decade and a half ago, but what about chess and martial arts? Who better to speak to that than world chess and push-hand champion Josh Waitzkin. Waitzkin was the subject of the 1993 film SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER. He went on to capture several national and world push-hands titles and recently authored THE ART OF LEARNING. "The essence of my vision is, in a learning process, connecting disparate pursuits," states Waitzken, who helped MC the event. "For me it's been chess and tai chi, now Brazilian Jujitsu. This group is fundamentally about that vision. We have great chess players - we have great martial artists - who all have a passion for a specific discipline but also for the learning process in general. My idea with this is that it's a youth empowerment event. It's teaching children, by seeing their role models up here from their diverse pursuits, how to dig deeply into what they are doing - how to see the connections between the martial arts and life in general. For me, the learning process doesn't relate to one specific discipline. It relates to seeing the connections between everything you do. Tai chi, for one, has completely changed my life. It opened my eyes to help me deal with the biggest crises of my life towards the end of my chess career. The lessons I've learned from tai chi have been everything to me in my life."

The Celebrity Chess Kings Tournament portion of the event: the eight playas are RZA, GZA, Paris, Amir Sulaiman, Ralek Gracie, Sunspot Jonz, Casual, and Monk
The Celebrity Chess Kings Tournament portion of the event: the eight playas are RZA, GZA, Paris, Amir Sulaiman, Ralek Gracie, Sunspot Jonz (from Living Legends), Casual (from Hieroglyphics), and Monk (from the Black Knights, a Wutang affiliate group). Josh Waitzken emceed the matches.

Wu-Tang Clan was also instrumental in connecting chess and hip hop. Their hit track "Da Mystery of Chessboxin" referenced a classic kung fu movie. Many of the Wu-Tang Clan are avid chess players, but they are far from the only ones in the hip hop world. Rakaa of Dilated Peoples, who also helped MC, comments, "It ties to hip hop in a couple of ways. The fact of the matter is it's not always cats with glasses and pocket protectors sitting in the corner. Hip hoppers can go to the streets and see the elders in the park playing it. There's a movie like SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER and there's also a movie like FRESH, which is telling the story from the street point of view, sitting in the park with people of color playing chess, different than the typical elitist image that is given here in the western world.

"The way I apply chess to hip hop is everything from how I arrange a song and how I arrange an album, how I set up a show, to how I negotiation up a record deal in a meeting. You develop a sensitivity for when you're being set up. You develop an understanding that you just react to every move for that move's sake, that you have to be able to think a few moves ahead and at least be able to see a few moves ahead in order to be successful against someone who's doing that towards you. In hip hop, it doesn't affect the music particularly. I don't write a lot of chess records, but a lot of it is reflecting on me applying the principles of chess to my life and I express that through hip hop. I myself am a student of Gracie Jujitsu. Before that I did Shotokan, Kenpo, taekwondo, western boxing. I've been a lifelong martial artist. I love martial arts. When I started training Brazilian Jujitsu, one thing I was told was that jujitsu was like physical chess - setting up people, being able to see when you're being set up, think a few moves ahead to get them to expose an opening for you."

The event was eclectic, but hugely successful, and the biggest winners in the end were the scholarship recipients. Banjoko explains, "This is why it's an invitational. We want to make sure that money gets to the people who need it the most, so we got kids from Unity High in Oakland, O'Connell High School in the Mission District, we got an organization called Youth Uprising that mentors kids and another organization called Youth Speaks and Muhammad University of Islam. We wanted to make sure that the kids in these organizations who do the work get access to the money. We're going to start deploying a whole bunch of other things like tutorials, like money for a tutor. At the same time, give them access to chess tutors or martial arts tutors."

Amidst the seriousness of play as the Celebrity Chess Kings Tournament waged on, RZA was all smiles. "Yo, this is super, man," said RZA as he set up his pieces for the next match. "I won my first game so I'm excited. I'm about to play the GZA there, so I might lose this one, but I already got one win, so I don't mind losing (laughs)." RZA went on undefeated to capture the belt.

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About Gene Ching :
The next big Hip-Hop Chess Federation event is the All Queens Invitational, scheduled for Oakland, CA in February of 2008. For more information, go to www.hiphopchessfederation.org. For more information about RZA, see our September '99 issue. For more information about Josh Waitzkin, see our July August 2005 issue.
Belt photo: The Hip Hop Chess Federation Championship Belt ? 2007 Martin Rochin.

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