Hip Hop Variation
By WGM Jennifer Shahade   
December 19, 2008
The RZA and Jennifer Shahade playing tandem chess. Photo by Blake Eichenseer
Rap artist RZA is the latest figure to arise in an emerging trend towards aggressive chess marketing.

For over a year, rumors have swirled in the chess world that RZA, a founder of the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, is serious about chess and wants to earn the master title. In addition to wanting to improve and inspire youth, RZA, who is interested in Asian culture and philosophies, sees chess as a way to self-improve: “64 squares lined up in eight columns, we sit and meditate and calculate on life problems.”

RZA is not like a stand-up-comic who can’t stand being funny in real life—he is a word artist on and offstage. Pretentious terms became simple while plain language is spiced up: RZA called team chess “doubles splash” and rejected “adjust” and “J’doube” in favor of, “Fix it.” If you haven’t heard of RZA, you’re not alone, he’s not the most famous rapper in America—but his fans are fervid. Jay Z is to RZA as Spielberg is to Woody Allen. Don’t even ask where Kanye and Eminem fall in; my metaphor doesn’t stretch that far.

I wrote a couple of articles for Chess Life Online about Hip Hop Chess Federation (HHCF) events such as the October 2007 King’s Invitational in San Francisco, which RZA won. I couldn’t find any game scores but was hoping to give CLO readers an idea of his strength, so I asked IM Josh Waitzkin about RZA’s approximate ELO [rating]. Josh was promoting his book The Art of Learning at the HHCF events, which combine chess, martial arts and music. Josh wrote back with an estimate that he admitted might be generous but said: “I kind of have this feeling that it kills the vibe to slap a number on them.”

I got a chance to see RZA’s chess skills for myself in a series of events hosted this summer by a non-profit I co-founded (see note at end of article), 9 Queens and WuChess, a hip-hop chess server.  At the 9 Queens knockout, a promotional event in Chelsea, New York, RZA started with the two-hours late opening, a variation that is common for musicians but is offensive to chessplayers, who despite their propensity for sleeping in, know to be punctual when the clock is set. Despite the fools’ mate of a start, RZA was both charming and charmed when he arrived. He got a chance to meet an idol of his own GM Maurice Ashley, and because it was RZA’s birthday, he received a triple-decker chess set from thechesspiece.com. He explained that his interest in founding WuChess and collaborating with 9 Queens was not just as an aspiring chess player, but also as a spokesperson for anti-violence and foresight;  “In our community ... if people think before they do ... they could avoid teenage pregnancy ... avoid crime, the penal institution; a lot of guys are in jail for 25 to life because they didn’t think before they did it. It was too spontaneous.”

RZA and I played a tandem chess game (two partners take turns making moves, consultation is forbidden) against Brittanie Uddin and Jasmine Fermin from I.S. 318, the junior high school championship Brooklyn team coached by Elizabeth Vicary. I knew that the girls were probably underrated at 1400 and 1500. The 318 girls probably would have beat us if they played more quickly, because RZA seemed to be constantly searching for the perfect moves. Some may attribute his unhurried pace to too much herbal tea. I don’t think any of us were that experienced in team chess or the unusual 12-minute time control, but I also think RZA lacked confidence about his obvious natural talent. Jasmine and I started first and then switched moves. In the opening/ middlegame, RZA played well, with the exception of the purposeless 14. ... b6. 14. ... Na5 or 14. ... Rc8, immediately seizing the initiative against White’s main weakness (the c4-pawn) were preferable.

King’s Indian Defense (A48)
Jasmine Fermin/Brittanie Uddin
Jennifer Shahade/Bobby Diggs (aka the RZA)

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 g6 3. e3 Bg7 4. Bd3 c5 5. b3 0-0 6. Bb2 Nd5 7. c4 Nb4 8. 0-0 Nxd3 9. Qxd3 d5 10. Nc3 Bf5 11. Qd2 dxc4 12. bxc4 cxd4 13. exd4 Nc6 14. Ne2 b6 15. Rac1 Na5 16. d5 Bxb2 17. Qxb2 Bd3 18. Rfe1 Nxc4 19. Qd4 Bxe2 20. Rxe2 b5 21. Qc5 Rc8 22. Qxe7

Position after 22.Qxe7

Move 22 was the most interesting of the game. RZA began to think for over 30 seconds—then he passed the one-minute mark. I stared nervously at the clock— just like in bughouse, getting low on time is a strategic disaster in team chess.  Besides, it seemed to me the only reasonable move was 22. ... Qxd5, regaining our pawn. According to the rules of team games or “tandem chess,” talking to your opponent is strictly forbidden. But when RZA finally moved his fingers toward the d-pawn, I heaved an audible sigh of relief that was as close as I could get to cheating. When I came home and began to reconstruct the game, I discovered that RZA correctly sensed a critical position. There actually is a far superior choice to 22. ... Qxd5—Black can play 22. ... Ne5!, winning! The move defines mind-boggling, and I’m pretty sure that in a quick-time control, most players would lose in a few moves to variations such as 23. Qxd8 Nxf3+ 24. gxf3 Rxc1+ 25. Kg2 Rxd8 or 23. Qa3 Nxf3 24. gxf3 Qg5+. The least losing move is the sad 23. Rxc8 Qxe7 24. Rxf8+ Qxf8 25. Rxe5 when Black should win even more easily than usual with the queen vs. rook and knight in quick chess. Instead the game continued ...

22. ... Qxd5 23. Qxa7 Qd3 24. Rce1 Ra8 25. Qe7

... and the position is balanced, but we were up almost two minutes at this point and won on time.
A few days later, RZA played some games with my father, FM Michael Shahade at a “Learn Chess” day in Camden, New Jersey. My father started out with two great opening lines: “Who should I tell people I met today?” (repeated about four times) and “Let’s play for one of those” (pointing to the rocks on RZA’s fingers that looked like they could cover a down payment on a Manhattan loft).

RZA laughed at both questions and chose an offbeat but creative line against my father’s trusty English. He kept his king in the center and launched an ultimately unsuccessful attack with h5, h4, Qc8, Bh3 and so on.   

I think RZA has the talent to become an expert chessplayer but the only way he can do that is to get in the trenches and play in real tournaments. His real name is Robert Diggs. You may find yourself across the table from him at your next local tournament.

RZA’s ties with chess go way back. RZA learned chess at the age of 11, to a girl who became more than just a girlfriend.  On Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the song, “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” begins: “The game of chess, is like a swordfight; You must think first, before you move.”   The chessboxing title was prescient in more ways than one—not only did the leader of the Wu-Tang get more and more into the violent rumble and tumble of chess as a sport, but chessboxing now has a federation based in Berlin (World Chess Boxing Organization, WCBO), competitions, titles, even a newswire. Although the sport has yet to hit the U.S. big time, Andreas Dilschneider of the WCBO predicts that there will be a more vibrant chessboxing scene here soon. David ‘doubleD’ Depto is from Los Angeles, where a future fight is planned, and the WCBO met with the Wu-Tang in Berlin to discuss a U.S. collaboration. Wu-Tang Clan’s new album, 8 Diagrams (2008) includes even more references to chess including songs such as “Windmill” and “Weak Spot.”  

The attention that RZA brought to the game this summer is part of what seems to be a movement toward more aggressive promotional chess events. Imagine this: RZA plays a team game with Hikaru Nakamura in a spaceship where the pieces are shuffled in the back row. Their opponents U.S. Women’s Champ Anna Zatonskih and T.V. detective Monk are playing their game on the bottom of the ocean—while scuba diving. Meanwhile, Maurice Ashley and I comment on the action in a cave.

Everything alluded to in that paragraph actually happened, just not all at once. While at the Curacao Chess Festival, Anna played a 30-minute game against the Dutch IM Robin Swinkels—underwater the whole time and using scuba gear. NASA challenged USCF scholastic players to a chess game against astronauts in space, hosted on uschess.org. The hit USA detective show Monk featured a chess related murder mystery, “Mr. Monk and the Genius.” Belizechess, a non-profit organization founded by former New York chess coach Ella Baron, organized a cave chess match deep in the Belizean jungle. Hikaru Nakamura won a 960 tournament in Mainz, Germany, coming ahead of 44 grandmasters, including Rustam Kasimdzhanov and Sergei Movsesian.

All these events offer one good photo-op after another, throwing a knockout punch to the typical chess photos of “one vs. one” that show nobody’s face. The future of chess is obviously coming, and it’s going to become the present at the 2009 U.S. Championship set for the new and elegant Saint Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center. I hope we’ll get to see Gata, Hikaru and “Alex O.,” our 2700+ triad, all vying for the 35K grand prize. I’m rooting for a lot of chess-boxing—on the  board.

9 Queens (9queens.org) is a non-profit organization that Jean Hoffman (from Tucson) and I founded in 2007. The name refers to the potential of all children and pawns to reach their eighth rank.