I n chess, the white pieces have the privilege of the first move, and as a result, white has a 52-56% chance of winning over black. But it wasn’t always this way. The convention that white takes the advantage only began solidifying in the mid- to late 19th century. Before then, any color could move first, such that when players decided who would go first, color didn’t enter into it. Why the change was made isn’t clear, but the convention’s become a bonafide rule, and most everyone’s forgotten that things used to work a different way.

But at S.P.O.R.T. Academy, it’s black—not white—that gets to move first.

S.P.O.R.T. is an after-school chess club that hops around New Haven, teaching the game of chess and using it as a medium to improve critical thinking and self-esteem in its young participants, most of whom are black. Having the black pieces go first is just one of the many ways Edward Trimble, S.P.O.R.T.’s founder (pictured fifth), tries to instill a sense of empowerment kids may otherwise lack.

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When students are starting out at S.P.O.R.T. Academy, Trimble likes to ask them, “What piece are you on the board?” They often identify with the knight or the queen or the bishop, to which Trimble responds, “No, you’re the king. This is all about you right now. … There’s nothing greater than you on the board. … You’ve got the power to tell all these pieces what to do.”

Like the example of the king, Trimble looks to turn various aspects of chess into a metaphor that might be applicable to the rest of a child’s life. “At S.P.O.R.T. Academy, we say: ‘Think with your mind, not with your hands.’” Trimble uses the saying to encourage students to think through a position completely before picking up a piece to move. But, even away from the chessboard, the concept has a valuable meaning: resolve situations thoughtfully, not impulsively.

The Academy’s students are primarily in middle school and elementary school, though some are much older. The oldest is 23 and the youngest—also among the most advanced players, according to Trimble—is 7. Many of them are from areas of New Haven where advantages are hard to come by, and Trimble aims to give them some. S.P.O.R.T. stands for “Street Poets Cipher Real Truth”—which draws from the “Supreme Alphabet,” where the letter “O” stands for “Cipher”—and Trimble, being from the streets and with a poetic bent to his thought process, is keen on deciphering and distilling truth, especially for the benefit of young people.

And he knows firsthand how beneficial chess can be. Trimble first picked up the game in prison at the age of 24, after being sentenced to four years at Enfield Correctional Institution on drug charges. Chess was a popular game at the prison and Trimble became fascinated by the diversity of pieces on the board, each type having a special way of moving through their 64-square world. To learn the game, Trimble turned to fellow inmate Sharieff—a 55-year-old man twenty-five years into a lifetime sentence.

But Sharieff wasn’t the type to give chess lessons unconditionally. He insisted that Trimble first learn “mathematics”—not arithmetic or algebra but “Supreme Mathematics,” a numbered system of concepts that runs: 1—Knowledge. 2—Wisdom. 3—Understanding. 4—Culture. 5—Power. 6—Equality. 7—God. 8—Build or Destroy. 9—Born. 0—Cipher.

What Sharieff didn’t tell Trimble was that Supreme Mathematics was a kind of numerology invented in the 1960s by Clarence 13X, a student of Malcolm X and the founder of a belief system whose adherents belong to the “Nation of Gods and Earths.” Trimble thinks Sharieff wasn’t trying to indoctrinate him but rather impart valuable life lessons, separate from the NGE’s more religious aspects.

Today, Trimble is still guided by the principles Sharieff taught him, as he tries to do for kids what Sharieff did for him: teach them about chess, and about life. During a recent session at Stetson Library, where the group convenes every other Saturday, felt-bottomed pieces hitting chess mats produce a constant tap-tap-tap as kids played for two or three hours at a time. Some were learning basic pawn movement with a board full of pawns. Others played straight-ahead matches.

Meanwhile, a stream of tips and advice flowed from Trimble, Anthony Murrell and other volunteer mentors. A mentor named Kevin, who preferred to withhold his last name, layered in life advice with his strategy tips: “Just because you can make the move doesn’t mean it’s a good move… As you go through life you don’t want to do things without thinking about them, because you’re going to get in trouble.” Besides the library, S.P.O.R.T. Academy meets at the Westville Manor location of the Boys & Girls Club of New Haven on Tuesdays, and it runs after-school programs at five different schools in concert with Leaders, Education & Athletics in Partnership (LEAP).

While students play one another competitively, S.P.O.R.T. doesn’t organize formal competitions. Trimble does want his students to become better chess players, but it’s more important that they become better players in the game of life.

S.P.O.R.T. Academy
Every other Saturday, 10am-1pm, at Stetson Library – 200 Dixwell Ave, New Haven (map)
Tuesdays, 5:30-7pm, at the Boys & Girls Club of New Haven (Westville Manor) – 295 Wilmot Rd, New Haven (map)
(203) 507-1754
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Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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