E. St. Louis Sr. Chess – 1978

Craig Preston highlighted in the E. St. Louis Senior Chess Club photo.

There is a lot of hidden history in chess. Many stories often go untold because no one sees the importance of documenting obscure events. Recently, I was surfing the web looking for information on NM Howard Daniels and came across a webpage with an article copied from The Chess Drum. It was Gregory Kearse’s article titled, “A LEGACY OF EXCELLENCE: A Brief History of Black Chess Masters in America.” The poster received feedback Craig Preston using the pseudonym “Curtis Metcalf” from E. St. Louis (Illinois). He posted the following message,

When I was in high school, the East St. Louis Senior High School chess team (read all-black) dominated the greater St. Louis metropolitan area. That team finished second in the state of Illinois in 1978.

I remember there being strong black teams from the Philadelphia area around the same time. I also remember some teams from New York doing well. (see page)

The question is… where are these players now and why did they give up chess?

19 Comments

  1. This can certainly be verified. E. St. Louis did take 2nd in state that year. In fact, I was at that tournament and my school (all-black Chicago Vocational) took 10th in state! I believe Edwardsville, Evanston Township, Bradley-Bourbannais, New Trier and Chicago Carver (all-black) were other top schools in that state tournament. There were about more than 60 schools with eight boards per team. It’s amazing that inner-city public schools could field such successful teams. We didn’t have the exposure, but chess was very popular at the school level. My school had 100 players in the chess club.

    Also true was the teams in Philadelphia doing well. Metcalf was referring to Roberts Vaux School, a team that won seven national championships in a row (1977-1983). What cannot be verified is Metcalf’s self-proclaimed record of 47 wins 0 losses and 6 draws on boards two and three. The number of games he played in one season seems to be too high.

    (See webpage!)

    1. Actually I made a mistake here. E. St. Louis took 2nd in state in 1978, but not in my senior year (as I stated). However, I remember them playing on the top boards in the last rounds. They apparently finished out of the top 10. However, here is the sterling record of Senior led by Coach Grosball. Bear in mind you had 70-100 teams in this tournament. I severely underestimated how large the tournament was.

      In 1974-1975 Senior was 7th. In 1975-1976 Senior was 6th. In 1976-1977, Senior got 5th. In 1977-1978 Senior got 2nd. In 1980-1981, Senior got 3rd. In 1981-1982, Senior was 10th. In 1984-1985, 10th and also 1985-1986, 10th. In 1986-1987, 2nd. In 1987-1988, 4th. In 1988-1989, Senior was 8th. In 1989-1990, Senior was 9th.

      What a fantastic run!!!

      My alma mater (CVS) is listed at taking 3rd in 1974-1975 with Marvin Dandridge on top board. In my senior year, we actually came in 9th in state in 1980 (not 10th).

      I checked the records which can be found below…

      https://www.ihsa.org/SportsActivities/Chess/RecordsHistory.aspx?url=/data/ct/records/index.htm

  2. It is unfortunate that many of students on scholastic teams do not continue to play. I recently looked up some of my old players on my best elementary team in 2002 and none had gone on to play any more tournaments since 5th grade, however their were several white players that they played against during that 2002 year and beat that were winning adult touraments now or achieving high ratings. It shows that the gap in chess ability deals more in continued training and support more than any group’s inherent intellectual ability. Furthermore, I believe that chess like a good vitamin can help stop social ills that plague black youth maybe it is time that Chicago reinvest more in chess than in assault weapons for their police force.

  3. Robert,

    It’s a national problem touching all ethnicities. I think it is more apparent because there are so few Blacks (relatively speaking) who continue. Asian kids seem to disappear from chess too and they dominate the scholastic ranks in America! There is certainly no intellectual issues, but perhaps chess is not often seen in the Black community.

    I do agree that chess can help many of these social ills. I have seen living proof. Chicago Carver that I mentioned above was located around Altgeld Gardens housing projects. It was the place Barack Obama worked to bring social programs to the improverished community. He described the community in the book, “Dreams of my Father.”

    Carver was a chess powerhouse and they were very confident in their abilities. Some of the players from that program have not played since, but a few have continued to play such as former Carver star, Melvin Alsberry). Maybe it depends to what extent chess made the player happy.

  4. Mr. Shabazz, it an honor that you responded to my letter, I truly respect the work you have done here in the chess drum.
    On a further note I tried to look up the original article by Gregory Kearse about Black Chessmasters from July 1998 in my collection of Chess Life’s but of the 8 1998 copies I have the July is missing. Since I had the 1998 September issue I thought it would be interesting to see who responded to the Black Chessmaster article and lo and behold it was you. Your letter was very illuminating, I didn’t know you were a junior state champion in chess whose academic ambitions slowed your progress, that was deep, I thought you were just a professor who loved chess. So in a spiritual twist you had already answered my above response 10 years ago in that letter.

  5. The magazine we look for always seems to be missing. 😕

    I don’t remember much of that letter I wrote to the editor, but of course the Kearse article was very timely and it fueled excitement. I talk about that article in my essay on how The Chess Drum was started.

    I’m getting used to people thinking I don’t play any chess, but initially it was very surprising. Some didn’t know I played chess at all and thought I was merely a journalist. I don’t have my games plastered all over the site and have only included a few after some requests. I have a few notable games, but it’s not a personal site as such.

    On other occassions, players I meet may know that I play, but assume I play at a low level. From what I have learned over the years, it’s highly improbable for a person to run a comprehensive site without a decent knowledge of the game. On the other hand, real strong players do not have time for such endeavors. There are blogs (which can be started in minutes by anyone), but full-featured websites are rare.

    The Chess Drum has nearly 7000 pages.

  6. I am positive that the person identified in the picture is Craig Preston. I was a member of the East St. Louis Chess team from 1979 to 1981. The mystique surround this team was incredible. We’d have most of the matches won before we even started the games. The toughest competition usually took place at practice.

  7. I forgot to add. Playing chess for East Side was about pride and brotherhood. It was my opportunity to show white students, particuarlly those who thought we lacked discipline, that I was just as capable as any of them. Once we graduated, the need to prove myself became less of an issue and chess became less enjoyable.

  8. Kevin,

    Thanks for posting. In his post, Metcalf stated that he was in the second row and third from the left.

    It’s unfortunate that the E. St. Louis players no longer play. None of my teammates play either. I saw the players at the tournament, but never met any. There is an entire chess world out there and always mountains to climb, but perhaps the emphasis on proving to Whites is a natural reflex in a race-conscious society, one rife with stereotypes of Blacks.

    The dropout rate for high school players is extremely high across all types of sample populations in the U.S. (large, small, public schools, private schools… Black, White, Hispanic, Asian ethnicities). Girls dropout at alarming rates. Worldwide there is STILL the impression that Blacks lack discipline for activities like chess and the three Grandmasters we have in chess are considered anomolies. It doesn’t have to be.

    The truth of the matter is that former players are more concerned about building a career and a family after high school. Among this number, Blacks tend to have a lot at stake economically and often cannot afford to spend the time required for chess.

    It’s interesting to look at the E. St. Louis club… less than 20 players. The club at my all-Black public school had 100 members and we played between classes, at our daily club meetings and a few of us played at the park district on weekends. Senior’s strength was concentrated in handful of players and that may have been the secret.

    1. Dr. Shabazz,
      Mr. Floyd is correct in his identification of me in the photo (Hi Kevin). Curtis Metcalf is my username on the discussion forum you referenced. (Curtis Metcalf is secret alias of Hardware, a character from Milestone Comics created by the late, great Dwayne McDuffie.)

      As for my record that year, although I do not have any independently verifiable evidence to offer, I assure you it is so. Concerning the number of games, we played in two leagues winning both: a Southern Illinois conference and also a Greater St. Louis area league as well as a number of weekend tournaments. I actually missed a tournament that year. Our first board player, Henry Blackwell, had a record of 54 wins, 5 losses, and 2 draws that year. Not to brag (well, maybe a little bit) but Hank and I were known as Zeus and Zeus Jr. or so proclaimed a headline appearing in the St. Louis Post Dispatch about the exploits of the East St. Louis Chess Team that year.

      East St. Louis at that time was literally a practically all-black town surrounded by practically all-white towns. While respected in sports, we took a special sense of pride in representing our school in the realm of the intellect just as Mr. Floyd stated.

      Thank you for this post and this marvelous website that I am just discovering.

      Craig Preston

      1. Thanks.

        I haven’t followed comics in a long time and I wasn’t aware of the alias. 🙂

        My parents are from E. St. Louis so I’m very familiar with the town. It evokes good memories for me in visiting my parents’ families and my “Big Momma”.

        I didn’t get a chance to meet any players from Senior, but I remember my aunt bragging about the team when I was down there from Chicago. What were the ratings of the players at Senior?

        1. As it turns out, James Ingram (front row, 2nd from the right) is hosting a radio show this Friday evening 8-9pm EDT on East Side chess. (East Side = ESL Sr. High) Folks can listen in at http://www.wgnu920am.com

          To answer your question, my rating reached about 1750 but my opponents always complained that it lagged behind my actual skill level because we played so many unrated high school matches and relatively few rated tournaments. I believe Hank Blackwell’s rating was in the mid 1900’s at the time.

          So you’ve got ESL roots. I wouldn’t be surprised if I know some of your folks. There is only one degree of separation in East Boogie.

        2. Got this e-mail from James Ingram who played on the 1978 Illinois State Championship team.


          Professor Shabazz:
          Saw your outstanding blog on chess.
          Tonite, Friday 10/21/11 I will host a radio show in St. Louis
          regarding the history of East St. Louis, IL Chess and outstanding Black players.
          I’m one of the ESL players who won the 1978 state championship.
          You may listen in/call in TONITE from 7-8pm CST.
          The website is http://www.wgnu920am.com
          The call in number (toll free) is 1-877-920-9468.
          I hope that you can listen and/or call.
          James Ingram

  9. Wonderful feed!, I see yall got the old school Dr.J wigs! Mr. Floyd thanks for sharing and being there!!! Peace.

  10. Great show tonight! I enjoyed the stories. It shows that there are still stories to be told… stories that are often missed. This why The Chess Drum exists.

    Greg mentioned Ghana. They are not a very strong federation at this time, but they have traveled to the Olympiad tournaments and I met Ghanaian players in Germany back in 2008. I traveled to Ghana in May, but we never hooked up.

    Africa’s talents is concentrated in a handful of countries right now such as: Egypt, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Botswana, Angola. There is one Black Grandmaster in Africa named Amon Simutowe from Zambia. He is currently doing graduate studies at Oxford.

  11. Did E. St. Louis Senior play in any open tournaments? I didn’t hear any mention of Senior playing in open tournaments during high school. There is no way of knowing how good players can be if activity is limited to scholastic tournaments.

    Of course, chess has turned into a youth-dominated activity with K-12 players competing against the top players… and they are strong. We have four young Black Masters (rated over 2200) out of New York… Jehron Bryant (15), Justus Williams (13), Josh Colas (13) and James Black (12).

    Unfortunately, there is a large dropoff rate of high school players after graduation. I am the only one from my team who is still involved in chess. It is important to expose students to the larger arenas with the strongest players and perhaps they will continue to play either during college (Pan-Am Intercollegeiate Championship) or afterward. St. Louis has a beautiful club so there are good options.

  12. Blast from the past reading this article. I played against these East St. Louis teams from 1978 thru 1981 for Edwardsville Highschool. As I recall 1978 was the high point for those East St. Louis teams. From 1979 thru 1981 the Edwardsville started becoming the dominant team from the St. Louis Metro Area. We finished 8th in 1979 at the Illinois state championships, 5th in 1980, and due to the National Highschool tournament being the same weekend as the Illinois State tournament in 1981, we decide to go to nationals and placed 3rd beat only by Stuyvesant out of New York, led by a kid named Joel Benjamin. In my humble opinion I believe had we played state that year we would have had an excellent change of winning it. Yes, I remember the East st.louis players, the Blackwell brothers, Ingram, Preston, Crisp, Spells, etc. and their coach William Grossball. They were a formidable bunch and we always loved the challenge to play them.

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