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The Fairy Godmother’s Gambit Print E-mail
By Lisa Suhay   
August 6, 2011
SPGI Champ Apurva Virkud (right) begins her final round game.
The following story chronicles Dyhemia Young's road to the Susan Polgar Girls Chess Invitational at Texas Tech. Apurva Virkud from Michigan won the event with a perfect 6-0 score. See full USCF rated results on MSA and find another story on the SPGI on Philly.com, featuring Vanita Young.

Norfolk, Virginia -- THE STORY of the Chess Cinderella of Palo Alto, Calif., started here in Norfolk in June during a phone call with an international chess grandmaster in Lubbock, Texas. Susan Polgar and I were discussing the free chess programs I run for at-risk children in public schools and community centers and how hard it is for many to get a shot at a scholarship.

I was complaining that I never see much diversity in scholarship tournaments, and she decided to put the fully charged magic wand in my hands. She offered to give whatever player I recommended a wild card invitation to the Susan Polgar Girls' Chess Invitational at Texas Tech. Three girls would win $40,000 scholarships to Texas Tech, in addition to two days of instruction from Polgar herself.

Because my players here are beginners, I knew the wild card girl should be Dyhemia Young, 15, of Palo Alto. Adisa Banjoko, founder of Hip-Hop Chess Federation, had often told me about her many trials. I was struck by how much of a fighter she was and how, no matter what befell her, chess always pulled her through. It was her life raft in a sea of chaos.

She deserved a chance at a scholarship, so I submitted her name, never realizing what an epic saga was being set in motion.

Dyhemia would prove nearly impossible to locate. She was in foster care. Somewhere. Banjoko put the word out to her friends and teachers. For nearly a month we looked for her, with zero results.

In desperation I began to Google her and found a missing child flyer that led me to San Francisco Police Missing Persons Detective Joseph Carroll. After spilling the story, I prepared for the brush-off. Instead, he said, "I am going to find this girl. She deserves her shot. Let's make something happen."

He called 30 minutes later. She was in juvenile hall, being held for running away. Carroll hooked me up with the Department of Social Services, and after hearing the story of our Chess Cinderella, they agreed to help. Dyhemia was moved to a group home in Palo Alto.

Then the city attorney got involved, banning Dyhemia from traveling without a Social Services chaperone. We needed a court order, plus an additional order allowing her to speak to the media so we could attempt to raise money for both plane tickets and double room and board.

The orders were obtained. Dyhemia, who had just 72 hours until the start of the tournament, talked to the press, and a story ran on the front page of The Los Angeles Times.

Federal Express was so moved that it paid for the plane tickets.

Actress Jada Pinkett-Smith was so touched that she paid for rooms and all meals and expenses for Dyhemia and her chaperone.
I flew to Texas for the tournament. The moment I met Dyhemia, I knew this really was meant to be. Despite a black eye from a jealous girl at the home she glowed. Much later we learned she had lost her glasses in "Juvee." She played every game hardly able to see the board. No complaints.

But competition chess is like the Olympics - players need a coach, money, training. Dyhemia has not had a personal chess coach - or the money to pay for tournament fees. She didn't know how to use a clock or take fast notation, both required in national tournament play. She was not a rated player and would have to learn the rules under fire.

Day one, with two games to play and a FOX/CNN affiliate's camera staring her in the face, Cinderella wept on my shoulder. "What if I lose all my games and disappoint everybody who believed in me? What is gonna happen to me if I lose?"

I said, "It will rain frogs. The earth will open and swallow you, and you'll come back as a chubby white lady from Virginia." She grinned and said, "Well if that's all, then I better just get started. That ain't nothin'."

But she rushed her game like it was street blitz and lost. A chess coach, Abdul Shakoor, father to Dyhemia’s new friend Diamond who also had major financial obstacles and came to the tournament totally unsponsored, took her out of the building and reset her mental clock. While she still lost Game 2, it was tight.

The next day, four of us paced as Dyhemia played. We agonized over every move. You would have thought we all had money on that game. With three moves to checkmate and Dyhemia winning, the local TV cameraman plunked his lens on the edge of the board, nearly toppling her game.

Without thinking, I grabbed him by the collar, hauling him backward, hissing in his ear, "Do that again and I give you your first jiu-jitsu lesson!"

Moments later, Dyhemia made her move and her opponent's king toppled. She did a silent little victory hop out the door.

She would lose all her remaining games. Despite quantum leaps, she could not close the disadvantage gap.
With only one victory, the awards ceremony was a formality until Polgar pulled me out of the room. In her Zsa Zsa Gabor-Hungarian accent she said, "Dyhemia. She is going into the 11th grade, yes?" Yes. So?

Apparently, the three grand prizes - college scholarships to Texas Tech - are not awarded to the top three overall but to the top three girls entering the 11th and 12th grades because the scholarships must be used within a certain time frame.
Because of her age, the scholarship restrictions and the fact that a girl who had edged her out in points was a senior already committed to another college, Dyhemia was one of the three new queens.

It was the most remarkable outcome, but not the end. Cinderella flew back to California and was returned to the ashes – the same group home with the same girls who attacked and beat her. Only now she is famous, so she is a bigger target. The court ruled she must remain there, perhaps for months as her star fades and the system’s short memory takes over.

My hope, her best hope, is that her story keeps being told and the spotlight can be kept on her long enough that some social leverage on the position is gained. Dyhemia asked me why telling her story was so important. I told her, “Nobody gets mugged at a police convention when they are standing center stage under the spotlight.” So that is my strategy, the Fairy Godmother’s Gambit. You read it here first.

There are thousands of Dyhemias sitting at their boards, whose names we will never know because they lack the support, financing and media attention.

Once upon a time in Norfolk, Virginia a Fairy Godmother set her wand down on a board with 64-squares and wished on a star that the Chess Cinderella would be safe another night, until just a little more magic could be gathered on her behalf.    
Guest columnist Lisa Suhay runs a free chess program and is a children's book author. Email: [email protected].

The winner was the highest rated player, Apurva Virkud from Michigan with a perfect 6-0 score. Mandy Lu, also of Michigan, and Chenyi Zhao of California each were presented with netbook computers for winning the under age 13 and under age 10 prizes respectively. Mandy also won the blitz tournament in a playoff over Evelyn Chen of Georgia. You can see full USCF rated results on MSA.

There were four scholarships given to players entering the 11th or 12th grade. They went to Vanita Young of Pennsylvania, Cheryl Liu of Illinois, Sneha Chikkila of Arkansas and Dyhemia Young of California. Each scholarship is valued at approximately $40,000 for out-of-state students who will utilize the award for their full four years in college. 

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