When the 13-year-old freshman confidently strode into the classroom at Orr High School, coach Tom Larson knew he had a great one.
“You can see it in a kid,” says Larson. “You can tell by the way he carries himself. Having self-confidence is usually the first step towards success.”
So Larson approached the student, Maurice Edmonds, and asked him to go out for the team. Edmonds said he had never played before but he would give it a try. Two years later he’s one of the top players for his age bracket in the state.
The sport is chess, and Edmonds is just the latest in the line of champions to emerge from Orr, a predominantly African American west-side public school on Pulaski near Chicago Avenue.
What’s remarkable about Orr’s success at chess is that the school’s not known for academic excellence. Over 80 percent of its student body scores below the state averages in reading and math. “These chess players are shattering all the stereotypes about our school and its students,” says Larson. “Chess is a complicated game. You have to be smart to play chess well. I tell them if they can do well at chess, they can do well at anything.”
Larson and his students make an unlikely contrast. A bear of a man with a bushy beard, Larson was raised in Canada and came to Chicago in the 1970s to work as an accountant. After spending seven years working for a local hotel, he decided to pursue his main love, teaching. In 1986, after several years as a substitute, he came to Orr to teach math.
He began teaching chess to his students as a way of getting them involved in math. To his surprise, they immediately took to the game. “They liked the battle of the game,” says Larson. “They liked the give-and-take and the challenge.”
Beyond that, the students liked discovering their own intellectual capabilities. It’s a moment best described by Nathan McCall in his memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler, which chronicles McCall’s progression from street criminal to reporter for the Washington Post. He learned how to play chess while serving time for armed robbery.
“Mo Battle [a fellow inmate] taught me chess by explaining its philosophical parallels to life,” McCall writes. “You can understand the game of chess if you understand the game of life, and vice versa,’ he said. “In life, the person who plots his course and thinks ahead before he acts, wins. It’s the same with chess.”‘
Larson’s first team at Orr had just six members. By 1989 there were over 50 members of the chess club. That year’s team placed 23rd in the national high school championships.
Orr’s chess players do not subscribe to any particular pattern of play. “Once I brought in a senior master who taught my team a certain defense,” says Larson. “Well, we were playing Evanston High School in the tournament. Evanston knew that defense and as a result they knew what we were going to do. They won 63 to 5 and I learned my lesson. Ever since, I avoid any system as a doctrine.”
Instead, Orr’s players are known for their free-lancing style. “There are millions of moves to make; it’s wise to be wide open in terms of all those possibilities,” says Larson. “Why limit yourself?”
In thinking that chess teaches larger lessons, Larson is like McCall. “One day, I made a move to capture a pawn of his and gave Mo Battle an opening to take a valuable piece,” McCall writes. “He smiled and said, “You can tell a lot about a person by the way he plays chess. People who think small in life tend to devote a lot of energy to capturing pawns, the least valuable pieces on the board. They think they’re playin’ to win, but they’re not. But people who think big tend to go straight for the king or queen, which wins you the game.’ I never forgot that. Most guys I knew, myself included, spent their entire lives chasing pawns. The problem was, we thought we were going after kings.”
Although he’s proud of his team’s achievements, Larson says he’s not fixated on winning. “That’s not what this is all about,” he says. “If you focus on the winning and losing you lose the point of the game, which is to learn how to sit still for extended periods of time and be analytical–to look at a problem and solve it by taking one step at a time.
“I don’t want my kids to be like Bobby Fischer. I mean, he’s a great player, but he’s not the kind of person I like. He’s too absorbed in chess. I want the opposite for my students. I want them to enjoy life and broaden their horizons and see the limitless possibilities of what they can do. I don’t want them to be narrow-minded.”
Every student at Orr is welcome to join the chess club, which meets before school, during lunch, and after school. There’s usually a running game all day long in room 207, Orr’s in-house suspension room, which Larson oversees.
“We have 96 members of the chess club–the top players play on the team,” says Larson. “Chess is their oasis. They come here to get away. I like it especially at 6:30 in the morning, when we’ll have 20 or so students here. Their minds are fresh. There are no distractions. As the day progresses the concentration fades. But if you can get a kid to focus his attention in the early morning it’s amazing what they can do.”
A few years ago one Orr player, Anthony Faust, finished second in the nation. Faust and two other graduates, Jermaine Bush and Fred Tolliver, serve as assistant coaches to the team.
“Anthony was really helpful in developing his twin younger brothers, Darnell and Cornell, who are seniors this year,” says Larson. “Anthony taught them by playing against them. That’s the best way to learn; you develop your game by playing the best.”
Other great players from Orr’s past include Latasha Jones, one of the school’s few female players.
This year’s squad may be Orr’s strongest. Led by Derrhun Whitten, Antwoine Conaway, Kelley Floyd, and the Faust brothers, it won the state high school crown in October. In December the squad traveled to Orlando and placed second in the nationals.
“It was great going down there,” says Maurice Edmonds, who competed in the sophomore bracket. “I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t scared. It was just a lot of fun.”
It’s not all success stories for the Orr team. Larson would like to see more girls participate.
“Girls come once in a while but they don’t last,” says Larson. “I think they see this as a boy’s game. But they shouldn’t. And I wish more of our kids would stick with it. I have 43 freshmen in the club, 30 sophomores, 10 juniors, and 8 seniors. What happens is some get better and want to stay. Others don’t see the improvement and they drop away.”
If high school players have a weakness, says Larson, it’s their impatience. “They all want to play the speed game: fast, fast, fast, get it over quick so you can play another one,” he says. “I try to get them to slow down, plan your moves, what’s your hurry? Another problem is that a lot of kids aren’t book smart when they come here. They’re not readers. I tell them, “If you want to get good at this game, if you want to improve, you have to read.”‘
Edmonds says he’s improved his concentration by playing chess. “I like to think at least three moves ahead,” he says. “I couldn’t always do that. One day I plan to be able to see ten moves ahead.”
Edmonds was like most club members in having no experience with chess before coming to Orr. “When I started, Mr. Larson kept beating me,” Edmonds says. “I told him, “I’ll beat you,’ and he’d say, “You’ll never beat me.’ Then one day I did it, I finally beat him. He says, “Yeah, you’re lucky.’ So I had to beat him again. Now he can’t talk smack about me anymore.”
As Edmonds says this, Larson sits a few feet away with a big smile. As many as 30 kids will show up during lunch period to play, but usually the only sound is the low murmur of kibitzers. Unlike many high school study halls, no one here is sleeping.
On the day I visited, Edmonds had three spirited games against Lamar Brown, another 15-year-old sophomore.
Brown surprised Edmonds by winning the first game. “You’re not gonna do that again,” Edmonds vowed.
But Brown beat him again. “Give me the black pieces, man,” said Edmonds. “I want those lucky black pieces.”
They switched colors, and this time Edmonds won.
“I told you I can’t lose if I’ve got black,” Edmonds said.
“That color didn’t have nothin’ to do with it,” said Brown.
They were all set to go at it again when the buzzer sounded and Brown had to head off for class.
“That’s all right,” said Brown as he rose from his chair. “I’ll get you again tomorrow.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Mike Tappin.