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RZA Wins Belt in San Francisco Print E-mail
By Jennifer Shahade   
October 17, 2007
RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan with IM Josh Waitzkin. Photo Katya Waitzkin.
On October 13, the day of the 1st Kings' Invitational, Hip Hop Chess Federation (HHCF)  founder Adisa Banjoko was filled with stress and excitement. He hadn't eaten for three days. After weeks of staying up till midnight and waking up at four AM to coordinate the event, he had nearly burnt out. "I almost blacked out just before the event began."Adisa said. The sleepless nights paid off when Adisa saw a line outside the San Francisco Design Center, and counted 500 attendees throughout the day. The press coverage included reports in The Oakland Tribune , Wired Magazine and the San Francisco Examiner , among others. Most important to the organizers were the happy inner city kids who went home with scholarship money, books, new threads and the memory of meeting some of the brightest luminaries in chess, hip-hop and martial arts.   
Oakland's Unity High team celebrates after the games. Photo Martin Rochin.

Adisa emphasized the importance of the prestigious event location, the Galleria, also known as the San Francisco Design Center. "Normally when people think of chess tournaments, they think of dingy, moldy book libraries and dark basements, and not only is that at a stereotype but it also often happens." Adisa continued, "I wanted to hold the 1st Kings' Invitational in a place that looks like chess makes people feel." 
Photos Martin Rochin


The day kicked off with a panel discussion between IM Josh Waitzkin, author of the Art of Learning , the chessdrum.net webmaster and founder Daaim Shabazz, RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan and Rakka of Dilated Peoples. Daaim Shabazz said, "You knew this was a special event upon entering the venue." Daaim thinks that HHCF can increase the awareness about both chess and hip-hop. "The challenge will be connecting the two worlds without losing the respective identities."
Panel members Rakka of Dilated Peoples, Daaim Shabazz, RZA of Wu-Tang Clan and Josh Waitzkin. Photo Katya Waitzkin.

The first major chess challenge  of the day featured 10-year-old English chess star Emma Bentley. Adisa Banjoko asked for any and all takers to step up. After a five-minute pause, the brave Ralek Gracie sat down to play Emma, who in June 2007, won  both the English Girls U10 championship and the Susan Polgar U11 World Open for Girls. "Emma mauled Ralek within 30 seconds," said Adisa, "It was great to see that his ego wasn't too big to play her." The ten-year-old girl's victory over the martial arts legend was a great spectacle and a nice segway into HHCF's next major event, the Queens' Invitational in February. Details on the event are forthcoming, but so far it is planned feature female stars from the worlds of hip-hop, chess and break dancing. 

After the impromptu exhibition match, the main festivities of the day began, including three main tournaments in addition to casual play, spinning by DJ Malcom Marshall and color commentary by IM Josh Waitzkin. The title event was the Kings' Invitational, in which eight hip hop and martial arts stars played a round robin for the championship belt.
Photo Katya Waitzkin

 After six rounds, RZA was a full point ahead of the field, playing against Monk, also of the Wu-Tang Clan. Monk is very serious about the game, according to Josh Waitzkin, who said: "Monk just read Shereshevsky's Endgame Strategy after I suggested it a few months ago."

Josh with Monk. Photo Katya Waitzkin

 RZA needed the win, but he was down a rook. Josh ran down the action for CLO: "RZA let his own clock run down to a minute or so to speed up Monk, get him going. Monk softened for a second, chilled out. You know how it is when you look at that battle from the outside for a second, smile at your position. Then BAM, back rank mate, HHCF belt is in RZA's arms."

Photo Martin Rochin

When Monk blundered the back-rank mate, Hip-hop legend Popmaster fabel was on hand to award RZA his championship belt.  

In addition to the headline event, there was a scholastic tournament with 125 players and a 16-player invitational Scholarship tournament with two 1600-dollar grand prizes. Timerbland Boots donated shoes to all the kids in the Scholarship tournament. Hundreds of copies of The Art of Learning and ChessMaster 10 were also given out to people who showed up. Adisa Banjoko was proud of these aspects of the event because he wanted Bay Area kids to come away from the event with materials to strengthen their own games and lives. "It's nice that they can tell people that they saw RZA win a belt, but that's not all it's about."
Photo Martin Rochin

Daaim Shabazz, although enthusiastic about the potential of HHCF, is skeptical about the rhetoric surrounding chess-playing rappers, and fears that HHCF will be misinterpreted: "The media may continue to marvel at the hip-hop/chess marriage, but it makes me cringe to repeatedly hear comments on how amazing it is to see a rapper playing chess. What does this reveal about the stereotypes we hold of hip-hop?" Despite these doubts, Daaim is a big supporter of the HHCF, and says: "I think Adisa and Leo Libiran have started a great movement. They will create an awareness that chess has not seen in quite a long time if they find the balance between the two worlds."
To find out more about the HHCF, check out their myspace page, their homepage and their blog .