Eagles Partner with ASAP in Thrilling Event for Philly Youth
By Jamaal Abdul-Alim   
May 24, 2011
Philadelphia -- Seventeen-year-old Vanita Young has dispatched opponents in a variety of venues, but none quite as interesting as the one where she and 212 other youths squared off in a four-round tournament on May 18th.

“I never played in a place like this,” Young said at Lincoln Financial Field, otherwise known as the home of the Philadelphia Eagles. “It’s a thrill.”

To be clear, it’s not like Young and the other youths competing in the 2011 Eagles Youth Partnership Chess Tournament were moving life-sized pieces across the 50-yard line in front of a capacity crowd, or that team and individual stats and instant replays of great moves were being displayed on the scoreboard, as interesting as such a scene would have been.

Rather, the youths in the Eagles chess tournament played their games on tables in a third-floor corridor of the football stadium in the area near the indoor concession stands.

But perhaps the most exciting aspect of the event came afterward, when the youths trekked down to the inner sanctum of the stadium for an awards ceremony inside the Eagles locker room. There, youths marveled at being so close to the green and white jerseys and other football gear worn by the professional athletes who comprise their hometown’s professional football enterprise.

“It’s Vick’s shirt, you know?” said Aurelio Xhepag, 18, who had pictures taken of himself near the jersey of Philadelphia Eagles star quarterback Michael Vick while holding the trophy he won for second place in the unrated high school section. 

“It’s somebody famous,” Xhepag explained. “Coming to a locker room of football players, it represents like you got something, a reward.”

Indeed, organizers of the event say the major aim of the Eagles chess tournament is to reward and inspire the best chess-playing youths for all their hard work.

“The goal is to reward the top players in the city,” said Windsor Jordan, Director of Chess Programs at After School Activities Partnerships, or ASAP which has been staging the Eagles chess tournament since 2004.

“If you play well,” Jordan said the message is to the youths, “you could end up at Eagles stadium.”

The relationship between ASAP and the Eagles goes back several years to when the Eagles Youth Partnership, or EYP, a philanthropic arm of the Philadelphia Eagles, approached ASAP founder and president Marciene Mattleman with an offer to support after-school programs in general and chess in particular.

“There are a lot of reasons we support chess in the schools,” said Sarah Martinez-Helfman, executive director of EYP. “We really want to turn (Philadelphia) into a chess city.”

Martinez-Helfman said the major reason EYP supports after-school programs is to help youths do something constructive during what in large metropolitan cities such as Philadelphia can often be perilous after-school hours.

“We know that the hours of 3 to 6 are the most dangerous for a child,” Martinez-Helfman said. “”We wanted to support safe and enriching things after school.

“Specifically, we focused on chess because that teaches children living in unsafe environments the kinds of skills that can be life-saving, risk and consequences, ‘If I move there this might happen.’”

Martinez-Helfman said the game of chess also emphasizes long-term planning -- something she says she saw exhibited in many of the youths participating in the Eagles chess tournament when she randomly asked them about their plans for college.

“Every child I asked had an immediate answer: UCLA, Temple, University of Delaware,” Martinez-Helfman said. “Everyone had an answer.

“All of these kids are that many steps ahead. I’m confident that all the kids are not only going to college, but finish, because they’re thinking several steps ahead.”

Indeed, among the college-going youths who competed in the tournament was Marquise Edge, a high school sophomore and member of the Paul Robeson Chess Club, who said he plans to major in computer engineering Virginia Tech or Penn State.

Edge, who won the top under 1000 award in the Eagles chess tournament, said he appreciated the experience of playing at the Eagles stadium and getting his award presented in the Eagles locker room.

“It find kind of special because we’re near the Eagles’ stuff and because we get out of school,” Edge said regarding the all-day tournament, which was played on a school day.

He said the game of chess will be instructive as he continues his quest toward higher education.

“In chess, if you make one bad decision, it could mess up the whole game,” Edge said. And so it is, he said, with life.

For youths who play chess with Philadelphia’s ASAP, college is much more than aspirational. The organization actually stages a tournament at nearby Haverford College in order to expose the youths to a college campus.

Occasionally, youths distinguish themselves in such a way that it positions them to win material not just on the chessboard but off.

For instance, Vanita Young, who took third place in the high school rated section at the Eagles chess tournament, recently won an invitation to play in the Susan Polgar Girls Invitational at Texas Tech University, where scholarship funds will be on the line.

Based on her performance at the Eagles chess tournament, whoever plays Young can expect to encounter a tenacious player with the ability to extricate herself from some precarious situations.

At the Eagles chess tournament, for instance, her castled white king looked extremely vulnerable with no easy escape route as Edge, who was playing black, lined up two rooks on the open h-file.

Edge’s coach, who once served as Young’s coach, noted the extreme difficulty that Edge faced playing a top-rated female who was also familiar with his coaching style.

“This is the ultimate test for him,” said Mikyeil El-Mekki, coach of the Paul Roberson Chess Club.

Indeed, through a series of favorable exchanges, a few moves later Young’s king was no longer and danger, and she had an unstoppable force of two pawn duos, and a knight advancing on black’s king, while black only had a dark bishop to defend and an isolated pawn with no hope for promotion.

However, as Martinez-Helfman noted during the awards ceremony: “There is a difference between winning and being a winner. Winning helps you be a winner. But if you are learning something from the times you lose, that is going to turn you into a winner.”

She then complemented the youths for bringing a positive vibe into the Eagles locker room.

“You are giving off such good energy in the locker room that it’s going to rub off the next time the Eagles play,” Martinez-Helfman said. She then had the youths rub their hands on the lush green carpet that covers the Eagles locker room floor.

Learn more about After Schools Activities Partnerships on their official website, phillyasap.org/home.aspx. Also see a video on the Eagles ASAP event on the Eagles homepage. Look for more writing by Jamaal this coming weekend at the Chicago Open.