Reflections on the 2024 HBCU Chess Classic

Nearly a month has passed since the HBCU Chess Classic ended in Atlanta, Georgia. Held April 20th and 21st, it was the second edition of an important movement for chess at “HBCUs” or Historically-Black Colleges & Universities. Certainly, getting chess on more HBCU campuses may help students see the intrinsic value in the game, but it can also open up an underserved market for membership in the U.S. Chess Federation. This is a logical step toward increasing awareness amongst Black college students and the larger Black community.

Back in Atlanta!
Photos and Videos by Daaim Shabazz/The Chess Drum

Before the inaugural event in 2023, there was a lot of fanfare as GM Maurice Ashley served as the emcee and co-host, along with co-founders Shaniah Francis (Spelman) and Alan Cowan (Morehouse). This year’s challenge was obvious as Cowan and Francis had graduated and moved on to their next endeavors. Francis told U.S. Chess of the challenges.

“We knew this year wouldn’t be easy,” Francis said, noting that she and Cowan did most of the organizing by themselves. “But now we understand more. Maurice [Ashley] told us how paramount an advisory board is. So we’ve installed a board of directors that not only gives us some sort of guard rails, but also allows us to delegate work next year and alleviate some of the pressure of just the two of us doing this.”

~Shaniah Francis on organizing challenges (U.S. Chess Online)
Shaniah is always camera-ready!

Last year, chess organizations came from far and near to support the historic event. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens came to give his blessings. Detroit City Chess Club brought a delegation. Media agencies came from as far as Oklahoma (KOSU radio) to cover the event. U.S. Chess Melinda Matthews was there both days to cover the inaugural event and also this year as well. While this year’s event did not attract the same media attention, it was critical to ensure this idea was not simply a “one-off,” “feel good” event.

The event was held at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the Exhibition Hall. The venue did not have the same mystique as Morris Brown but served the basic purpose of staging the event. While no school or city officials were there to bless the event, Morris Brown President Dr. Kevin James came to support the cause.

Dr. Kevin James, President of Morris Brown College, visits the tournament.

The HBCU Mystique

Before discussing the event, there are a few things important to note about the reputation of HBCUs. Many parents may overlook HBCUs as an academic destination for their children. They may get misinformed about some of the claims of poor organization and resource management. While those are certainly factors in a number of HBCUs, the history of these institutions is replete with success stories. Many of today’s Black political, economic, and civic leaders were produced at these institutions.

Those having visited an HBCU during homecoming festivities or a campus tour will immediately feel a different energy. It is a self-affirming environment where students can focus on honing their skills and getting the maximum out of their creative talents. Other institutions also succeed at producing successful Black talent, but there is a rich tradition at HBCUs that other institutions may be unable to replicate. This type of motivation can be seen anywhere on an HBCU campus where the school’s mission is not merely about educating but also creating a mindset of excellence.

The Second Time Around

The 2nd HBCU Chess Classic did not have the excitement of the inaugural event, but there was still great anticipation in the air. As teams filed in, there was a reunion of sorts as returning players became reacquainted and even played blitz. Howard, Hampton, and North Carolina A&T entered the hall and appeared to be ready. Malik Castro-DeVarona, last year’s individual champion, would be returning, but Howard would be missing Samir Acharya, and Goodness Atanda. Would Howard repeat?

Exhibition Hall at Georgia Institute of Technology
Howard arrives to defend their title!
It took Hampton 22 hours by bus to arrive in Atlanta!
Malik Castro-DeVarona plays blitz with Morehouse alumnus Homer Robinson, Jr. as FAMU’s Caleb Parker watches.

As players arrived at the Exhibition Hall, many began to move into different parts of the playing area to strategize and play offhand games. The excitement started to build. Alan Cowan and Shaniah Francis worked feverishly to start the games on time. Tiffany Harris was working with  Seth Dousman-Disroe to set the pairings as time was approaching to start the event. They would direct two sections: students and alumni.

The final details were being covered, and the players waited patiently!

There was a fun opening ceremony where some of the players got a chance to introduce themselves. It was an improvised activity that added a different element. Caleb Parker of FAMU later mentioned that the social aspect of the event was one he enjoyed the most. The vibe was definitely different as there was more socializing based on genuine interest and not because of extracting intelligence from the opponent. Players mingled easily and were no mean-spirited exchanges.

Let the Games Begin!!

The venue on the second floor was spacious, well-lit, and seemed like a regular weekend tournament. Apart from players’ paraphernalia, the room had no collegiate flags or colors. There was a nice placard with all the team logos in the hall. This added an important detail as the placard read “annual.” This provides a source of motivation to keep the event going, and perhaps more schools will be participating next year.

Photos and Videos by Daaim Shabazz/The Chess Drum

Daaim Shabazz and Tiffany Harris pose by tournament placard
Photo courtesy of Tiffany Harris

There were some newbies in the tournament and some who just learned to play! As expected, some were underrated. Howard’s top seed was nicked for a draw from Morehouse’s Joseph Downs, pushing the defending champion off the first table. After four rounds, there were only two perfect scores as Bobby Lewis (NCAT) defeated Jamila Thompson (Spelman), and Caleb Parker (FAMU) defeated Xavier Ntamere (Howard). Both Lewis and Parker would play in the title game.

Faces in the Crowd

Photos by Daaim Shabazz/The Chess Drum

While there were not many guests, a number of alumni came to support their schools. One of the most inspiring stories was the effort of the Hampton Alumni Association to raise funds to ensure Hampton was represented. Here is a video of alumni addressing the players!

Video by Karla Booker

A Thrilling Finale’!

Prior to the final game, FAMU advisor and Caleb’s father, Lee Parker, told him to play a quiet game. There was an indication that Lewis would be fully confident and may overpress trying to win convincingly. Lewis had shown that his style was on the aggressive side, and he typically overpowered his opponents. However, Parker would be ready and had been playing in local Tallahassee tournaments and the Black Dog Cafe on Saturdays. He would later tell The Chess Drum that his secret was making sure he had no assignments due the following week so he could focus. The stage was set.

Bobby Lewis (NCAT) getting set to play Caleb Parker (FAMU)
Bobby Lewis resigns, giving Caleb Parker the game and title.

So FAMU’s Caleb Parker would win the second HBCU Chess Classic! It was a befitting way to end the tournament, as both players were getting down to their last minutes in a tense position. In an interview with The Chess Drum, Parker felt great about his result. More importantly, he feels his title can be a springboard for reigniting chess at FAMU. In the interview, he goes over the game and his thought process at critical points of the game.

Despite Lewis’ loss, he would lead NCAT to the team title. Spelman’s Jamila Thompson had a wonderful tournament and only lost the one game to Lewis. The New York native enjoyed her second event and plans to continue playing chess back home. Jordan Levert (NCAT) and Matthew Rhone (Howard) also had 4/5. Last year’s individual champion, Malik Castro-DeVarona (Howard), ended with 3.5/5, losing to Nicholas Crawford (Hampton), who led Hampton to 3rd place.

Team Results

Individual Results

2024 HBCU Classic participants and organizers
North Carolina A&T Aggies… 2024 HBCU Team Champions
Caleb Parker (FAMU)… 2024 HBCU Individual Champion
Photos and Videos by Daaim Shabazz/The Chess Drum

Standings: Team, Individual, Alumni
Crosstable: U.S. Chess Federation
Photos: Day 1, Day 2

Chess and Academic Success

Many articles have been written about HBCUs on these pages, some as early as 2006. However, one may ask, what is the significance of such a chess movement at HBCUs? Firstly, there is an untapped market for hundreds of new members across more than one hundred HBCUs. Second, chess has been proven as a tool that can help students in the academic realm. Studies have been conducted on this, but there is also evidence in the chess community showing how chess can build academic confidence.

In a piece titled “Former African-American standouts reap benefits of chess,” the six featured players pursued multiple degrees at eminent institutions such as Columbia, Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. All reached relatively high levels of chess ability. All have professed how chess was related to their academic success. There are plenty of examples since this 2019 article, including National Master Tyrone Davis III, who graduated from MIT (2022) and is now an Investment Analyst. He also co-founded “The Gift of Chess,” which has received worldwide acclaim.

While chess will not guarantee academic excellence, some analytical skills can be transferred to what would be required to succeed in academic subjects. In addition, chess can be infused into curricular designs to teach various lessons about navigating decision trees, time management, and preparation through data analytics. Both FAMU and Hampton have, at one time or another, had chess as part of the curriculum.

Ideas for the Future

To maintain the excitement for the next edition of the HBCU Chess Classic, new ideas will need to be injected. The same format cannot be repeated. While it is great to have HBCUs assemble for a chess competition, the activity is more about networking for academic and professional advancement. Some of the following ideas can be added to the weekend of the chess tournament.

  • HBCU as perennial host—Unbeknownst to many, there was a last-minute cancellation at an Atlanta University Center school and the event moved to Georgia Tech. Most will agree that an HBCU campus is the preferred location. This helps to legitimize chess in the eyes of that campus community and may spur more interest from the surrounding community. Perhaps a university or community service event would help engagement.
  • Teach in/Play in—This would be a community service event or camp in which the players interact with youth from the surrounding community to share the joys of chess.
  • Campus tour of host HBCU—A tour of the history of the host school should be incorporated. It will give other competitors an appreciation for the HBCU as a collection of schools with rich histories.
  • Player Booklet with Profiles– This addition could be done relatively easily since each school has to submit information. Possibly a good networking resource.
  • HBCU Recruitment Fair—As the Classic grows, companies will be interested in tapping the pool of the best HBCU minds and creating an event around career advancement.
  • Guest Lectures—These could take many forms, including chess lectures or game analyses by a local master.
  • Scholarships—Trophies as a symbol of excellence have been important to college sports. These displays line the halls and represent the pride of the institution. However, if there were a scholarship incentive, it may draw more attention and provide greater justification to prepare and travel long distances for the event. Many universities participate in case competitions and brain bowls, where prizes are awarded to the winners. It has become a major attraction, and students lobby to get on teams.

These ideas are a handful of what this event can incorporate. Some ideas can be executed in the short term, while others may depend on how the Classic grows over the long term. Participants of the HBCU Chess Classic will be future professors, lawyers, physicians, social scientists, engineers, and thought leaders. Hopefully, they will be able to return to the Classic and talk about how chess has made such an impact on their lives!

Other Media Sources

Daaim Shabazz, “Meet the Kings & Queens of HBCU Chess!“, The Chess Drum, 9 May 2024.
Daaim Shabazz, “Caleb Parker is 2024 HBCU Chess Champion,” The Chess Drum, 28 April 2024.
YuKwon Toney, “Caleb Parker is HBCU Chess Champion,” FAMUAN, 26 April 2024.
Melinda Matthews, “The 2024 HBCU Chess Classic: A Year for Re-Invention,” Chess Life Online, 23 April 2024.

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