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Howard Chess Team Earns A Record Eighth Place in National Tournament

Picture of Howard University Chess Club members. From left to right, Samir Acharya ‘25, Lloyd Davis ‘23, Malcolm Wooten ‘23, Lawrence Custis ‘25, Goodness Atanda ‘24, Ryan Harris ‘25, Malik Castro-DeVarona ‘25, Cassidy Sparks ‘24, Iyanla Savage ‘24, and Miles Matterson ‘23. Photo Courtesy of Dr. Nasi Muhammed.

Eleven members of the Howard University Chess Club earned eighth place in the 2023 Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship, a four-day event that brought in 84 teams from over 40 universities.

The team traveled to the Westin Hotel in downtown Seattle on Jan. 5 to compete against 38 other college teams over four days in the 1800 rated and under division. 

The Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship follows team average ratings that are based on individual ratings taken from the December Supplement Rating. Chess ratings can range from 400, a beginner’s level, to nearly 2900, where some of the world’s top grandmasters are, according to Chess Klub.

According to club advisor and Assistant Dean for Religious Life, Dr. Nisa Muhammed, the team entered the tournament ranked in 43rd place and tied for seventh place with Duke University’s Team B. 

They beat Princeton University’s Team B, Portland State University’s Team B, University of Pennsylvania’s Team B, Western Washington University’s Team A and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Team F. Both Howard University’s Team B and Team A averaged a total of 19.5 wins throughout six rounds. 

Some of the universities who competed at the championship included the University of Chicago, the University of Southern California, and the University of Washington, with Webster University’s Team A ultimately winning first place. 

The Howard chess team’s performance in the championship tournament is a substantial improvement from last year’s competition, where the team won zero games.

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According to sophomore club president Malik Castro-DeVarona and Muhammed, this year’s success is largely due to the Chess Club’s new coaches: University of Tex-Dallas’s 2021 Chess Educator of the Year, Jerald Times, and 12-year-old FIDE (International Chess Federation) Chess Master, Tani Adewumi. 

“I would attribute the coaching to our success. Particularly regarding team strategy, so who we would choose to play…talking about round-by-round adjustments, I think Jarold Times was really helpful in that regard,” Castro-DeVarona said.

“Last year, not one student won a game…,” Muhammed said, “This year, they won games. I mean it was a tremendous difference because of the professional training they got from the professional coaching. That made all the difference for them.” 

Coach Jerald Times engaged in a Chess match with the team. Photo Courtesy of Dr. Nasi Muhammed. 

To prepare, the students put in an hour of practice twice a week to develop their skills in preparation for the tournament from the time they finalized which members would be competing in early December. Times recall many nights when the club members would stay up until the early hours of the morning practicing and preparing for the tournament. 

“I played the whole team up until two o’clock in the morning on Wednesday night. I am like wait, these guys are crazy!” Times said, “I thought I was crazy about chess. These people, they’re crazy about chess and they were serious.”

“To prepare for the Pan-Ams I made sure to learn some drills and fundamentals to practice from Coach Times and Tani. They were super helpful in telling us what we needed to keep an eye out for,” Iyanla Savage, a member of the Howard University Chess club, said. “I also played a lot of puzzles which are super fun and helpful for pattern recognition. I did several dozen of those a day just trying to get as many as I could in a row. I could literally do them for hours.”

“I was really proud of everybody,” Castro-DeVarona said. “I think probably the three factors that attributed to the success the most was first and foremost…I think that everybody put a lot of time in between the last Pan-Am and now. And we’ve all seen our chess improve [to] a significant degree.”

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For the past three years, Howard’s chess club has been the only HBCU to compete in the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship. The lack of HBCU representation in collegiate chess is an area the club is hoping to see improvement in.

“Chess is about justice for black people, black young people who want to get in the game. And if we don’t tear down these ceilings there will be no justice for young black people to be involved in chess,” Muhammed said. 

The club hopes that their participation in the competition acts as a catalyst that will help open doors for other HBCUs to participate in collegiate chess championships.

Castro-DeVarona doesn’t believe there’s any sign that HBCUs cannot compete with some of the more widely known schools in the nation,“…we’re actually competing for a top spot this year, which is really exciting,” he said, “The only HBCU to be doing it at the moment. I think it could spell more success in chess within the Black community at the collegiate level.”

Photo Courtesy of Malik Castro-DeVarona. Members of the Howard University Chess Club pose for a photo. From left to right, Ryan Harris ‘25, Naomi Baptiste, Lloyd Davis ‘23, Iyanla Savage ‘24, Cassidy Sparks ‘24, and Miles Matterson ‘23. 

One of the ways the Chess Club intends on combating this issue is by introducing a collegiate chess championship exclusively for HBCUs, but details about a proposed HBCU championship are yet to be concluded. 

Times said, “…we also have to acknowledge that there is an evolving community of Black chess players within these universities that need to be acknowledged and identified, and they need to have a space of acknowledgment and comfortability that these HBCU championships will eventually host.”

Moving forward, the members hope to expand the Chess Club and invite more students to join their organization.

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“We take people of all levels. We give lessons and we have a really active discourse. So, I would say, definitely, no matter your skill level, even if you’re a bit nervous, definitely reach out. And I think you’re gonna find a lot of people have your back,” Castro-DeVarona said. 

On Feb. 4 the chess club will partner with Make A Move LA, a community development organization that promotes chess, travel, and art, to host a chess tournament event called “Make A Move DC!” on the second floor of the Armour J. Blackburn University Center. 

Tickets for tournament entry are $10 for students and $15 for non-students, according to the event’s RSVP link. Though going to the event as a spectator is free. 

The tournament will include a halftime show, a post-tournament networking event, and a $200 prize for the first-place winner. 

Members of the team encourage those interested in the tournament or in joining the club to reach out to the team’s Instagram page @howardchess.  

Copy edited by Alana Matthew 

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