Roberts Vaux Middle School has a long history of chess prowess. Salome Thomas-EL, the current coach of the team, revisits many of the personal challenges that he had to face in coaching at Philadelphia’s Vaux in his book, “I Choose to Stay.” Thomas-EL decided to reinvigorate the program and bring back the luster it once enjoyed. Perhaps one has to go back a bit to understand the storied history of Vaux and the chess legacy left behind.
Back in its glory days, Vaux was coached initially by Michael Sherman, a special education teacher who led the team to its first national championship in 1977. According to Steve Rasmussen, who taught math at Vaux, Sherman’s wife set up a nutrition program for the players. Math teacher Jeffery Chesin took over the coaching duties and Vaux won an unprecedented seven National Junior High School championships (1977-1983). The school has produced many strong players, but alumnus NM Howard Daniels is arguably the strongest to ever graduate from the program.
1979– Trip to Yugoslavia for Vaux
Given their unprecedented success, the Vaux team members were invited to the White House on May 3, 1979 prior to their two-week trip to Yugoslavia. The trip was upon the invitation of the Belgrade Chess Association who had played a satellite telephone match with the Philadelphia stars. Impressed with the play of the Vaux players, the Association offered an invitation. Vaux had won National Junior High championships in 1977 and 1978 and boasted a streak of 85 straight team victories. Six Vaux players going on this historic trip were: George Kinsler (13), Howard Daniels (13), Anthony Carmichael (13), Ben Green (12), Kevin Jiles (12) and Michael Allen (12). There were also players from Douglass Elementary and Benjamin Franklin High School, schools “chessically-related” to Vaux.
In 1981–The “Bad Bishops” and the “Mighty Pawns”
Daniels, who still lives in the Philadelphia area but is no longer active, has the distinction of becoming the youngest Black master in U.S. history at 15 years, 4 months. With the help of nutrition program inherited by Coach Chesin, he had instituted a health regiment for his players. Two weeks before a competition, he barred his “Bad Bishops” from consuming junk foods, sodas and other types of empty calories.
In addition, there was a conditioning program with push-ups, and jogging. The top players at Vaux (called Vaux Junior High in 1981) were Kevin Jiles (1942 USCF) and Michael Allen (1817 USCF), both 15-years old at the time. Jiles, was said to have had a swagger and often played with his collar upturned or with a toothpick in his mouth. For a brief period in 1997, Jiles returned to serve as an Assistant Coach at Vaux under Thomas-EL.
The Vaux powerhouse was buoyed by a “farm system” from Douglass Elementary School, a program run by Stephen Shutt (now at Masterman). This amounted to a system where players came into the Vaux program ready to play having already accumulated substantial scholastic experience. Shutt’s “Mighty Pawns” also had a regiment of study which included opening theory and basic chess strategy. Many players had developed the discipline to study for two hours daily. It was noted that mastery of chess had helped students gained social skills, discipline and an increase in mental agility.
Roberts Vaux Chess Team – 1981: (Front row, L-R) Jamal McDaniels, Jeffery Moore, Daniel Lewis, Alvin Green, Debbie Leftwich, Kevin Jiles, Michael Allen, Delbert Rhodes, Marvin Edmonds, Terrance Heath. (Back row, L-R) Dr. Bernard Kehrer (Associate Superintendent), Frank Devine (Principal), Jeffrey Chesin (Coach) and Dr. Michael Marcase (Superintendent). Photo courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company.
A Vaux Rebirth
The Vaux team is now known as “The Mighty Bishops,” apparently a merging of the two old names, and to de-emphasize the word “bad.” Back in 1997, Vaux developed a website touting their various accomplishments and also featured Demetrius Carroll, a top Vaux player once featured in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine (22 February 1998). It appears as if Vaux (under the helm of Salome Thomas-EL) will regain the magic that made them a media sensation 20 years ago. You can contact Thomas-El at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- “Amazing Chess Champs headed for Yugoslavia,” The Washington Afro-American, May 8, 1979, 2.
- “The Bad Bishops: Philadelphia Teen-agers win Fifth Straight Chess Title,” Ebony, October 1981, 103-106.
- Roberts Vaux Chess Team website (1997-98)
- The Chess Drum, “Former Vaux Students Making the Grade,” 22 July 2003.
- The Chess Drum, “Book on Chess Triumph has “Staying Power,” 14 June 2003.
- The Chess Drum, “I Choose to Stay” now available at bookstores!!” (7 March 2003)
- The Chess Drum, “Chess Coach unveils book about chess triumph at Philly’s Vaux!” (26 January 2003)
- The Chess Drum, “A Principled Chess Coach says, “I Choose to Stay” (27 February 2002).