E. St. Louis recounts Chess History

High school chess lore is always replete with stories of legendary coaches, legendary players and legendary tournament battles. East St. Louis Senior High School, a migrant town in southern Illinois, had a good run of successful scholastic events in the 70s and 80s. Perhaps it was a discussion recounting the glory days that lead to a radio segment by James Graham, on staff at the St. Louis American newspaper. In a town mostly known for Josephine Baker, Miles Davis, Tina Turner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, it has a storied history in scholastic chess.

Graham, a member of the 1978 state championship team, hosted a radio show on WGNU 920AM that brought together some of the architects of those years. “Senior” was a known sports powerhouse in Illinois producing world-class athletes in track and field, basketball and football. However, this Black high school added chess to their tradition of success. The Chess Drum ran an earlier story which was mentioned on the show.

On the show was host Ingram (alumni player), William Grosball (coach for 26 years), Greg Jones (alumni player) and Ameer Ali (alumni player). The show began with Ingram talking about the misperception often held in popular society that Blacks excel in the athletic domain but not in mental exploits. This is been a long-held theme and has continues to have a following in the scholarly community.

Coach Grosball came to E. St. Louis in 1970 and took on the role of sponsoring a chess club under the urging of Assistant Principal William Ray, who was moving on to a private business venture. Coach went through the chronology of teams including names of original players such as the Galloway brothers (Eric and Richard), Terry O’Neal, Ramon Williams, Wayne Hurling, Alonzo Collins and Robert Macklin. Henry Blackwell, John Brown, Charles Smith and Henry Sandford were also mentioned. Hall of Fame football player Kellen Winslow was also on the team back in 1975 and went undefeated that year. He mentioned a key point being 1975 when the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) included chess as a sport.

1978 East St. Louis Senior “Flyers” chess team

Guest Greg Jones gave some stories of beginnings of “street chess” with Adonis Scott. Stories followed about going to well-funded white schools and beating them mercilessly. Of course being well-funded does not equal automatic success. In fact is a popular misnomer, but the point was clear. This phenomenon was common across the country when inner-city school kids would beat the odds.

There is the misperception that well-funded, suburban schools are superior. Philadelphia’s Roberts Vaux is probably the best example of national success from the inner-city with seven national championships. However, there are others and E. St. Louis Senior is one of them.

Ameer Ali came onto the show and talked about the role chess played in helping him to focus more on serious academics. This seems to be a ongoing theme in scholastic chess and its role in help shaping students academic performance. James Ingram later mentioned that he attended Boston University and teammate Craig Preston attended MIT. Coach talked about winning the St. Louis high school chess league three years in a row amongst 24 teams.

One of the other important stories told was importance of preparation in the early days of the team. In 1976, Ingram and Jones noticed that the players were not focused during the matches and did not maximize their performance. They were trash-talking, playing basketball in between rounds, staying up late, eating too heavily and overall lack of focus. The two players got together, read the rulebook and decided to dedicate themselves to the matches ahead. That dedication paid off and Senior became one of the most consistent programs in the state.

According to the IHSA website, Senior had a sterling record in the Illinois High School Association tournament and finished in the top ten for many years.

1974-1975, 7th; 1975-1976, 6th; 1976-1977, 5th; 1977-1978, 2nd; 1980-1981, 3rd; 1981-1982, 10th; 1984-1985, 10th; 1985-1986, 10th; 1986-1987, 2nd; 1987-1988, 4th; 1988-1989, 8th; 1989-1990, 9th (see IHSA website)

The hour-long radio segment was very enjoyable and will uncover some of the forgotten history of scholastic chess.

Listen to full segment here!

Daaim Shabazz

Daaim Shabazz is the founder of The Chess Drum, while serving as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds a B.S. Computer Science from Chicago State University, an MBA in Marketing and a Ph.D. in International Affairs & Development, both from Clark Atlanta University. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

20 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Chess Drum ยป Blog Archive ยป E. St. Louis recounts Chess History | Chess IQ
  2. I would have to say to my fellow chess team members that East Side chess players were always focused during their matches. This is in reference to James and Greg speaking on our 1976 team (I was a member from the 1974-1977)…I wouldn’t say that we weren’t focused, because any team finishing in the top 10 in the state has to be focused. We dominated the metro east and the St. Louis area and that may have made the team a little cocky, but it was something that we consistently backed up! What people don’t hear about are the teams of the early ’70s, because statistics weren’t being kept in Illinois until after the ’77 season (started in ’78), so you don’t hear about our earlier teams that paved the way for teams that followed. No one mentions the likes of Zachary Lee, Tyrone Gause, Fredric Scott, Michael Scott, Kellen Winslow, and myslef (LaDonald Scott)…these members of the ’74-’75 team were dominant when chess was just getting started at the high school…it was my first year of ever playing chess (’74-’75) and I went 4-0-1 at the state tournament, and the team finished 7th in the state. How many teams had three brothers in their top eight players…that was kind of unique…LOL! Every year after that, the team improved its state finish…that itself mean that there must have been some kind of focus going on. The person that should get most of the props for our team winning is our coach (Mr. William Grosball), who had enough knowledge of the game to assemble the team and know how to put his board order of players together. There were always good players and at times anyone could have played any board and we could flip flop anytime we wanted. Mr. Grosball went out of his way to ensure we played the best teans we could find, and get us into tournaments to better our game, so when our teams went to state, we were usually ready. We learned from each other because of the trash talking, so the trash talking did not hurt our game, it made those that were weak strong…determined to get better! I think the reason you never heard about any of us after high school is because we all moved on to other cities, jobs (I’m in the military), families, or whatever…then we just never got back into the tournament thing again and there just isn’t many people that has the passion to play wherever we are. All-in-all…East St. Louis Sr. High School was a power house of a chess team, and if I return back to the area when I retire from the military in 2012, I will make sure that I go to the school and try to bring chess back to the school, but I won’t know that until I retire and see where my next career takes me, but it needs to be back in the school!

    1. You are more than welcome! I would have loved to have called in on that radio show had I known about it. James is really good at keeping things in East St. Louis going, so it would have been good to have heard from him on the show. If you hear of them having another one sometime, feel free to get with me and let me know, and I will definitely call in. I’m looking forward to going home next month (December), the city is recognizing our homeboy (Kellen Winslow) and will be inducting him in the city sports hall-of-fame from what I was told today, so I will be attending that. Feel free to reach me at LADONALD59@aol.com if there is another show, and if you’re still in touch with your chess team, maybe one day we can find a mutual place, and I can assemble who I can from our team and we can have a friendly weekend match somewhere one of these summers. I think something like that would be fun and a good getaway for us all. The challenge is out there!!!

  3. Thanks for commenting LaDonald. Your comments are invaluable since this is the only way we can get clarification. Wish you could have called in on the show.

    These types of stories are so common in Black chess. I can name several high schools just like Senior who were in the inner-city and had strong programs because of dedicated coaches. My high school was similar.

    We were all-Black (with 100 in the club) and a dedicated white coach who taught math. We were also a Chicago powerhouse, but our problem was that the coach restricted us from playing in open tournaments because of an IHSA rule about disqualification due to winning money in “professional” tournaments. I wrote about this is the other article I wrote on Senior.

    I did an article of the seven-time National Champion Vaux Junior High School of Philadelphia who had a similar history. https://www.thechessdrum.net/blog/2011/11/13/vaux-glory-days-revisited/

    There are also other schools in Chicago, New York, Baltimore and other major cities where Black schools excel. We don’t often know about school like E. St. Louis Senior because there is no media outlet. Now we have one in The Chess Drum (past ten years) and I thank you for your contribution.

  4. This article brings back a lot of positive childhood memories (which makes for a horribly long post…sorry!). I played for this high school, as did my brother. Some of my best memories come from the trips we took to play chess throughout the Midwest. I’m especially glad to see “Groz” get some well-deserved recognition for his unflagging sponsorship of the chess program at East Side.

    What most people never talk about, when discussing the long run that the Flyers had, was the absolute importance of their farm system. Lansdowne Junior High (now closed) had a team sponsored by Alan Magarian. This school fed almost exclusively into East Side, and the two schools together left a large imprint on the St. Louis scholastic tournament scene for about 20 years.

    In fact, Lansdowne is where I really got my start. I didn’t attend Lansdowne (I went to George Rogers Clark JHS, now closed). Lansdowne was the only junior high in the city with a chess program. So, when I came down with the chess bug after my 6th grade year, I started going to Lansdowne to practice three days a week. This meant I had to run home after school (my house was maybe a 60-second walk from Clark’s front door), drop my bookbag on the porch, and double-time it to Lansdowne for practices. ๐Ÿ™‚ When that wasn’t enough, I would then walk back from Lansdowne to East Side, and practice with the high school team for as long as they stayed. Then, I’d walk home…very tired, but very happy.

    The strength of the Flyers was always in its depth, rather than at the very top of the team. This was a necessity for any team that had serious designs on winning, as the Metropolitan St. Louis Interscholastic Chess League had five-board teams – and the Illinois High School Association state tournament required eight-board teams. The best players could hold their own against the best in the St. Louis metro area and in Illinois…but what made the team so dangerous was that you could find 1500- or 1600-strength players as far down as board five or six.

    The feeder system got diluted when the East St. Louis school district consolidated its gifted program at A. M. Jackson Academy (side note: named after my great-grandfather). Mr. Magarian moved there, and took chess with him. The students at A. M. Jackson got split between East Side and Lincoln Senior High (now closed), so some of the chess talent was wasted at Lincoln, which didn’t have a team.

    Still, it was a great run for chess in East St. Louis. These two schools didn’t get much publicity, but continuously put out strong teams. Unfortunately, now that both Mr. Grosboll (who I still see whenever I visit East St. Louis) and Mr. Magarian are both retired, no one has taken up the slack.

    1. WOW! I’m not sure how to start this response but here we go. I am one of the greatest beneficiaries of Chess in East St. Louis. So much that I wrote a book about and have dedicated myself to sharing all the lessons discussed here with children around the world. Boyd Reed is mentioned in chapter 4 in a story I affectionately call “Boyd ‘The Brain’ Reed.” Boyd, you don’t know this but you had a tremendous impact on my life. Hundreds, and soon thousands, of kids know your name.

      I stumbled upon this blog looking for a picture of Allen Magarian for a presentation. I talk to him often and saw him only a few weeks ago. He is a legend for sure. I certainly hope that we can keep this story alive. In addition to coaching chess, I produce documentaries as a hobbie. I think this topic is worth considering. Boyd, call me immediately so I can send you a book and anyone interested in catching up, discussing a documentary or just playing a few games drop me a line harlanbh@gamil.com.

      Harlan B. Hodge

      1. Hi, Harlan. Glad to read that you’re doing well, and are as ambitious as ever. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m afraid I can’t lay much claim to being all that smart, but I am flattered nonetheless. I’ll email you separately.

  5. This was a great story! We are planning to have a Major Chess Tournament for the East St Louis area on March 30, 2013. Centerville City Hall. If anyone would like to help to make this event a success for the kids please contact us! For more information contact Mr. Shakoor 614 800-0117

      1. we could use any assistance possible! urban.kings@yahoo.com we are in need of boards and clocks to use for the tournament. We are meeting to work on the logistics of the event! promotion and sponsors and great event for the youth!

    1. Thanks to the Chess Drum; Mr. Boyd Reed, Mr. David Allen, Mr. Gabriel Boyd, Mary Hoffman Hunt and many others who have helped to make the lives of the youth much more enjoyable! 1st Annual Diamond Shakoor Chess Festival May 4th 2013 Saturday From 8am to 4pm at the Centreville City Hall 5800 Bond Ave. Centreville, IL 62207. This is going to be a wonderful event! For Tournament details call 614 800-0117 or email urban.kings@yahoo.com

  6. Hello everyone,

    My name is Warren Holt, I also played chess for Lansdowne and East Side. I was the captain and played board one my eight, ninth and Senior year. I served 20 years in the Army and have just recently moved back to the Saint Louis area. I now teach chess at the Christian Activity Center in East Saint Louis and I am looking to network with my old team mates! Please hit me up ASAP.
    Henry.W.Holt@ gmail.com
    Landownes (1983-1987)
    East Side. (1987-1990)

  7. I played on the chess team from 1980 -1982 I wanted to know if bill gross ball is still alive?

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