Black History Month 2022-Day 7: Philly’s Roberts Vaux Jr. High

Scholastic chess has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few decades. With Supernationals drawing over 5500+ players from across the country, times have never been better to start playing chess. When Supernationals VI set a record for 5577 players, it demonstrated how far scholastic chess has grown.

There have been many stories of scholastic teams coming from obscurity to win national titles. Brooklyn’s IS-318 was the subject of a film called “Brooklyn Castle” highlighting their success. However, there was another team that stole the national spotlight in the late 1970s out of Philadelphia named Roberts Vaux Jr. High School. The school won eight national championships and seven consecutive from 1977-1983. Vaux was characterized in the movie, “The Mighty Pawns” featuring Alfonso Riberio.

Featured in a profile on The Chess Drum:

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.

Plotting moves, the “Bad Bishops” are closely watched by their coach, Jeffrey Chesin (at end of table). Kevin Giles and Michael Allen play a game of blitz (center). At this point, Vaux went on to win seven consecutive national titles. Photo courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company.

Howard Daniels became the youngest Black master at 15 years 4 months, a record that stood for decades. In the September 1977 issue of Chess Life, Roberts Vaux and Frederick Douglas Elementary graced the cover as the two teams looked dashing in their suits hoisting trophies in triumph. Two years later, they were headed to Belgrade, Yugoslavia for a two-week visit and competition. 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).

Vaux Junior High School chess team with President Jimmy Carter.
Vaux Junior High School chess team with President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

The victory train continued rolling as Vaux coasted to their 5th straight title. Nicknamed “The Bad Bishops,” they were the subject of an article in October 1981 Ebony magazine.

Roberts Vaux Chess Team - 1981

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.

By 1983, they had won an impressive seven national titles on the strength of local financial support. The story of how an underfunded school was able to raise the funds for cross-country travel was featured in the cover story, “Funding Scholastic Chess: A Philadelphia Story.”

These lessons are still relevant today, despite chess taking on a more mainstream persona. Vaux and Douglass became national sensations and a documentary film was produced on their success. It was the article’s thesis that both the business and community organizations should reconsider their hesitancy in supporting chess. The lessons are golden.

Coach Salome Thomas-EL, surrounded by his eager players from Vaux Middle School. (photo by Michael Ahearn)
Coach Salome Thomas-EL, surrounded by his eager players from Vaux Middle School.
Photo by Michael Ahearn

Years later, Salome Thomas-El reestablished the Vaux (now Middle School) chess program in the late 1990s winning 1st in the K8 division of 1997 Supernationals (4217 players). Former Vaux star Kevin Jiles was back as a coach. Thomas-El chronicled his experience titled, “I Choose to Stay.” Renamed “The Mighty Bishops,” they were recognized on the Congressional floor (June 10, 1977). Their resume included many feats bringing back the glory days.

* * *

Daaim Shabazz, “Historic Moments: Roberts Vaux ‘Bad Bishops’The Chess Drum, 1 May 2003.

“The Bad Bishops: Philadelphia Teen-agers win Fifth Straight Chess Title,” Ebony, October 1981, 103-106.

“Amazing Chess Champs headed for Yugoslavia,” The Washington Afro-American, May 8, 1979, 2.


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