President Obama’s White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, the only Executive Order signed by the president to focus specifically on African Americans, got a new executive director two days ago–David C. Johns, a former educational staffer for the U.S. Senate. The aim of the initiative is to seek out “evidence-based best practices anywhere in the U.S. that can improve African American student achievement–from cradle to career.” The initiative is supposed to work across federal agencies and with partners and communities nationwide to produce a more effective continuum of education programs for African American students.

One approach Johns can use is expanding opportunities and incentives for Black males in school to play chess. It is a growing phenomenon in youthful Black circles, and though it is very difficult to become very good at this centuries-old game, many more are doing it, and they are doing it at a younger age.

One can see Black youngsters playing speed chess in almost any American park during spring and summer afternoons.

Not enough research has been done yet on how chess affects academic performance, but the majority that has been done demonstrates definitively that the game teaches problem-solving and thinking skills.

Vicki Bullock, a teacher at Cleveland Elementary in Northwest Washington, said that in the decade that her fourth-grade students have received free chess lessons, she has been impressed at how chess helps even the most energetic, talkative students settle down, focus and calculate moves.

Also, younger chess players currently are aided by Internet programs and tablets that enable them to practice obsessively and access hundreds of years of recorded strategies in mere minutes.

Gifted students can study the game with professional coaches, who are themselves grandmasters. The lessons are expensive, however–$100 an hour is not unusual–and finding sponsors is not unusual.

The U.S. Chess Federation, the game’s governing body, does not keep records on the ethnicity of its members. There is, however, a website, the Chess Drum, which chronicles the achievements of Black chess players and is run by Daaim Shabazz, an associate professor of business at Florida A&M University. The site currently lists 85 African American chess masters.

Fewer than 2 percent of the 47,000 members of the Chess Federation are masters, and just 13 of them are under the age of 14.

Among that select group of prodigies are three players from the New York City area–Justus Williams, Joshua Colas and James Black Jr.–who each became masters before their 13th birthdays. Another teenager, Jehron Bryant, 15, of Valley Stream, N.Y., became a master in September 2011.

“Masters don’t happen every day, and African American masters who are 12 years old never happen,” said Maurice Ashley, 45, the only African American to earn the top chess title of grandmaster. “To have three young players do what they have done is something of an amazing curiosity. You normally wouldn’t get something like that in any city of any race.”

Since becoming the first African American to win the grand master title in 1999, according to the Chess Federation, the Jamaican-born New Yorker has traveled the country to promote the game of kings as a game for children.

Justus, Joshua and James all aspire to be grandmasters by the time they graduate from high school, something that only a few dozen players in the world have done. Ashley, who has met the boys but does not know any of them well, says the obstacles against achieving that feat are substantial.

He said several children that he had coached to the junior high school national championships in the early 1990s went on to enroll at Ivy League colleges and then to have successful careers. Along the way, he said, playing chess became less of a priority for them. It is difficult to make a living as a player, he said, adding, “I’ve seen many talented kids go by the wayside.”

Ashley said he could not predict whether the success of this latest trio of young Black players would encourage other young African Americans to play, but he hoped so, and he was going to do his part to make that happen.

Ashley, who became a master at age 20 and a grandmaster 14 years later, said the rarity was not surprising. “Chess just isn’t that big in the African American community yet, but it’s growing,” he said.

The Chess Federation uses a rating system to measure ability based on the results of matches in officially sanctioned events. A player must reach a rating of 2,200 to qualify as a chess master.

In September 2010, Justus, who is now 14 and lives in the Bronx, was the first of the three boys to get to 2,200, becoming the youngest Black player to obtain the master rank. Joshua, 13, of White Plains, was a few months younger than Justus when he became a master in December 2011. James, 12, of Brooklyn, became a master in July of that year.

This seems to be a grand opportunity to improve the educational vitality of young Black males.

Hopefully, the new executive director will pick up on it.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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