Players in the tournament's intermediate section face off in the championship round. Credit: Christopher Kieferro

On a late Saturday morning in the courtyard of National Teachers Academy in Chinatown, more than 100 kids, family members, and coaches were participating in one of the only free, rated chess tournaments for youths in Chicago. It was organized by Shawn Sorsby of A Step Ahead Chess and the Chicago Chess Foundation. Most of the participants were between the ages of five and 14.

Rated tournaments provide participants with a chess rating—an estimate of their playing strength based on prior results through the United States Chess Federation ranging from 100 to 3000. “Grandmaster” is the highest title one can attain in chess if their rating surpasses 2200.

At most rated tournaments, players are predominantly white and Asian boys. But the chess players in the courtyard that morning were mostly Black, Latinx, and Asian, with a considerable number of girls participating.

Kids were paired up over chess boards arrayed across 20 benches in the courtyard. They stared at the boards with more concentration than their ages might suggest; many of the players were five, six, or seven years old. But the tension would break occasionally as their playfulness jumped out.

Jaden Walker, nine, stood intently, his brow furrowed and his hands in his Adidas pockets. He closed his eyes and threw his head back in a quiet gesture of frustration while he waited for his similarly aged opponent, also a Black boy, to finish his turn. On the chess board between them, pawns and knights were developing attacks and counterattacks. It was the two boys’ third and final match for the day.

Jaden was crowned Minnesota State Champion in chess this May, and he’s participated in A Step Ahead Chess online from his Minnesota home since the start of the pandemic.

Nine-year-old Jaden Walker stands while considering the board. | CREDIT Christopher Kieferro

His mom, Heather Miller Walker, said she signed Jaden up for chess in first grade because she needed childcare before school started. The chess club met before school, and she thought Jaden would enjoy it since he is a “logical” kid. He didn’t at first, because it didn’t have the same sense of community as A Step Ahead, “or the same instruction,” Heather said.

Once COVID-19 made everything go online, Heather searched for online chess opportunities and stumbled upon A Step Ahead in one of her Facebook groups. “The fact that there was a Black couple and Black children that are involved . . . that’s not really Jaden’s experience in Minnesota, specifically, so [I thought] that would be great for him,” Heather said. “I always say that was one of the silver linings of the pandemic.”

After each turn, Jaden or his opponent would press a button on a chess clock that sat beside the board. Mike Hayes, the board president of the Chicago Chess Foundation, served as one of the tournament directors at this preseason tournament.

He explained that each player gets 30 minutes per game, and the clock is running the whole time they’re thinking about each move. Once their turn is over, they hit the button that pauses their clock and starts their opponent’s. If a player’s 30 minutes runs out, they lose. “Earlier, a player made the winning move with one second left on the clock,” Hayes said.

Behind them both, another match ended. A small kid jumped up and said “Checkmate! I just got checkmate!” The opposing kid grabbed his backpack and walked away looking dejected. The winner ran up to high-five an onlooker.

Coach Shawn Sorsby is a former substitute teacher as well as the executive director of A Step Ahead Chess, and he has a history of establishing youth chess clubs, where his true passion lies, at the schools he’s taught at.

“I call this the preseason,” Sorsby said, pointing to the clusters of families around us. “We’re really bringing families together . . . Look around you, see everybody here. White, Black, Indian, Asian, they all together, right? But we gon’ come together and be a super team.”

Chess tournaments typically happen in surrounding suburbs like Skokie or Naperville, but not in Chicago. Just to have a national chess rating, Sorsby said, players have to pay an annual membership fee of about $20. To enter tournaments, there’s usually an additional entry fee that can range from $50 to $1,000 depending on whether the level of play is local, regional, or national. 

Coach Shawn Sorsby shows his son the basics. | CREDIT: Debbie-Marie Brown Credit: Debbie-Marie Brown

“You got to pay to play, pretty much,” Sorsby said. He added that the competitive nature of the game gives kids pride in their chess ratings. “So you might be 22,222 [rated chess kid] in the nation now or the 10,000 best kid, or the 500th best third grader.” A Step Ahead Chess covers the cost of participation in rated tournaments for all of its participants.

Not only do rated tournaments rarely happen in the city, but different chess organizations rarely partner together. Hayes said it’s almost “territorial.”  But Sorsby said that since A Step Ahead was an expert at virtual lessons and Chicago Chess Foundation were experts at running tournaments, he recruited the Foundation to lend their name and expertise and run the games. 

The Chicago Chess Foundation uses chess as a vehicle to teach social, emotional, and leadership skills to youth across the city. “Our mission is to give every kid in Chicago the opportunity to play or compete in chess, and for free, at no cost,” said Matt Kearny, the foundation’s executive director. “And so we focus really on the communities and areas where cost becomes a barrier to participation. He said the organization’s “sweet spot” is kids in kindergarten through eighth grade.

To hit that “sweet spot,” the foundation runs in-person clubs at 12 to 16 schools and centers around the city. They also host six co-ed K-through-8 scholastic chess tournaments a year—all free, unrated competitions. Sorsby has his students attend all six of their competitions. 

“That’s one of the differences between us and A Step Ahead Chess,” added Holly Hardner, the foundation’s program manager. “Regardless of whether you have a membership in the U.S. Chess Federation, you can come and participate in our tournaments.”

“And they’re like, ‘who are y’all and where are we from?’ ‘We everywhere. We virtual.’”

Coach Shawn Sorsby

A Step Ahead Chess is a nationwide organization serving 200 kids weekly using 15 to 20 coaches from around the country, and they’ve doubled in size in the last year. The organization partners with individuals, as well as with different schools. At the National Teachers Academy for example, they offer after-school chess lessons to the 50 participating youth. Kids log into the library computer lab after school and can start playing chess with another student in New York. Or, a whole class might receive a lesson from a coach in Michigan.

Half of the coaches are under 21; three are in high school, and six are in college. All staff are paid. The nonprofit also has a partnership with After School Matters which pays high school students to explore their passions, and chess is now one of those passions they can choose to pursue.

Although Sorsby is based in Chicago, the online program rapidly grew to include friends and families of participants in eleven states (California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin) through word of mouth. This year, A Step Ahead Chess’s local partnerships shine through their 40 students from Cambridge Classical, an all-Black private school on the south side, 20 students from Village Leadership Academy in the South Loop, a group of kids from a boxing organization called “the Bloc” on the west side, and 50 students from National Teachers Academy.

By the time in-person tournaments started happening again in December 2020, after two years of virtually competing, A Step Ahead Chess students “smashed” at the local competitions. This past March, for example, Sorsby brought his students to the Illinois State Championship, and his kindergarten and first-grade team took second place. Another third-grader of theirs took individual second place, and was undefeated, at his first rated tournament ever.

Players in the beginner section—some as young as five—shake hands before a match. | CREDIT Christopher Kieferro

Sorsby was animated as he spoke about the impression his youth left on others they compete against. “And they’re like, ‘who are y’all and where are we from?’ ‘We everywhere. We virtual.’ ‘What? How? How y’all do that?’” Sorsby laughed.

Sorsby didn’t start playing chess until college at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign when one of his Alpha Phi Alpha frat brothers introduced him to the game. “First day, I get beat by like a ten-year-old, and that’s when it hit me. This is not a game that you can just play. You got to study and practice.”

Sorsby grew up in Englewood, then later moved to the suburbs, but has been “all over the place.” After earning a master’s in business and working in the finance industry, he became a math teacher. He’s taught in Gary, Chicago, Harlem, and the Bahamas.

Everywhere he went, he started a chess club.

When he started a club on Grand Bahama Island, no one expected it to last. But it grew to be 40 students deep, and they traveled to tournaments in North Carolina, New York City, the Bay Area, and Chicago under Sorsby’s leadership. (“We got a tour of the Google campus in San Francisco, and got to play chess with the Google staff.”)

Dangle Martin, 24, is one of the program coaches who flew in to the preseason Chicago tournament on October 1. He first met Sorsby when he was a senior in high school in the Bahamas.

“He brought out a chessboard in the cafeteria with him. I was like, this dude doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Martin said, cracking a wide smile. “You know, let me cook it up real quick.” Today, Martin works as a project engineer at a civil environmental firm in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Martin learned to play chess from his dad when he was eight and early on, he was intent on playing the game until he could beat his father, which he accomplished his sophomore year of high school. By the time Martin met Sorsby, he was also beating his granddad regularly at chess. “[Coach Sorsby] won the first game. I confess on the record. He did beat me the first game, but he did not beat me after. He really did not. Never again did he beat me after that.”

From then on, Martin and Sorsby taught the Bahamian team together, Martin serving as the latter’s right-hand man. He remembers their first trip to North Carolina for a high school championship game, but none of the Bahamians could play in the rated games because none of them had a U.S. Chess Federation rating, since they were Bahamian without the proper U.S. paperwork.

While there, the kid played “skittles” matches (fun, undocumented matches that are not timed) and Martin won nearly every game he played, and tied against the highest rated player at the school. “Before that, I didn’t even know I was that good,” he said. “I just knew I was good enough to beat Sorsby.”

“He brought out a chessboard in the cafeteria with him. I was like, this dude doesn’t know what he’s doing. You know, let me cook it up real quick.”

Dangle Martin, describing the first time he met A Step Ahead coach Shawn Sorsby

Eventually, Sorsby and his wife left the Bahamas to return to Chicago right before the pandemic started. He had planned to maintain the team in the Bahamas as well as starting a new one Chicago, with the two teams visiting each other in the offseason, before competing together at rated tournaments.

Once COVID-19 hit, they no longer had the option to travel, but they decided to beef up their online chess club and proceeded with virtual tournaments over Zoom.

“So we got Chicago kids and kids in the Bahamas on a Zoom playing chess, talking trash.”

Soon, A Step Ahead Chess, a virtual chess community, was born, as he accumulated new players and coaches around the country. Sorsby says that online chess is actually more effective for teaching than in person.

“On a computer, you can play a game, and it will analyze the game for you and say, ‘These are the good moves you made. These are the mistakes you made. This is how you can fix it. This is the better move.’”

Martin smiles with a lot of pride and confidence for the program, which he rejoined as a coach in 2020 during his senior year of college when A Step Ahead was starting.

“The place that you grew up shouldn’t determine your outcome in life, or shouldn’t determine your success, right? Like, my opportunities. And like, me being from the Bahamas, like I shouldn’t have been limited and not being able to play in that tournament, because I was from the Bahamas. No, they should have let me play. This program is meant to like give everyone the opportunity to play the game of chess.”

As a coach, Martin notices a wide spectrum of behaviors that new kids show when they begin. For instance, he said some kids came to them “pretty quiet,” but put a chessboard in front of them and “they blossom, they’re full of confidence and are talking, you know, interacting with new kids.”

He says that it’s because in their lessons, they don’t just talk about chess; kids are encouraged to share their other hobbies and interests. One kid Martin teaches shares a unique dinosaur fact every single day, while another gives daily soccer updates.

A Step Ahead Chess players celebrate a successful rated tournament. | CREDIT Christopher Kieferro

Heather, Jaden’s mom, says she has no idea how to play chess, so the kids all impress her. And the experience has had a huge impact on her son. Chess has helped him “focus and have goals,” and the competition portion is fun, but also teaches him how respond to the pressures of winning and losing.

Jaden won his first and last game at the Chinatown-based chess open, but lost the one in the middle when he was competing against a high school student twice his size, which Sorsby said intimidated him. But you wouldn’t have known it, seeing him wield a trophy he was awarded at the end of the day.

Jaden said he likes chess because he gets to use his mind, and because he has a lot of friends online now. “I [had to] learn what the pieces meant, what they do . . . Like what I do in my daily life is like math . . . math is always in chess. I have to figure out what the pieces do, where they move, how they move. I have to look at the board and see, what can I do? What do I want to do?”

Correction 10/13/22: This article previously stated Shawn Sorsby is currently a substitute teacher at National Teachers Academy; Sorsby left that role the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and has been the executive director of A Step Ahead Chess since then.

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