Portrait of a Bronx Chess Champion, Age 12
By Joy Resmovits
When Bronx student Justus Williams started third grade at P.S. 70, his mother, Latisha, urged him to take on chess. The hobby was “less common” than basketball, she said.
But Justus wasn’t enthusiastic at first. “I thought I was going to be embarrassed,” he said.
As it turned out, mom knew best.
Justus, now 12 and completing sixth grade, is the highest-rated chess player in the U.S. in his age and gender group, and fourth overall in World Chess Federation international rankings for his age group.
Justus found out recently that he will travel to Halkidiki, Greece in October to represent the U.S. in the 2010 World Youth Chess Championship. That’s after a summer filled with tournaments such as the Pan American Youth Chess Festival in Brazil and the World Open in Philadelphia.
Justus first played at a Chess-in-the-Schools program in the Bronx’s P.S. 70, when he was in the third grade. His instructor Shaun Smith said Justus had more focus than his peers, and pushed himself to the top of the class—and the country—by fourth grade. “He’s a very mature sixth grader in that he’s stoic and adult-like,” Smith said. “He’s the quietest person. He’s very shy.”
As he started winning, the champ began to see chess as less of a chore. “My mom didn’t have to push me to go to tournaments anymore,” he said. His grades got better, too.
Smith, who coordinates Justus’s tournament play, started bringing him to more prestigious games when he hit fifth grade. He now practices one or two hours a day.
How does a 12-year-old chess champ prepare to become a master? His mom figures that out. She makes sure Justus gets a good night’s sleep and steers him from junk food; healthier foods such as fruit and chicken salad help his mental stamina, she said.
“It’s tempting for him to fall out of that because he sees other people there with the burgers and fries,” Latisha said. “He thinks, ‘Here I am, eating a salad, I look like the freak of the week.’ That’s the role I play, letting him know it’s okay.”
Justus now attends middle school at I.S. 318 in Brooklyn–a 90-minute commute from home, but the school’s strong chess program makes it worthwhile, he said. Still, Justus said he gets nervous before tournaments. “After the first round when I win, I start to get comfortable,” he said.
Regardless of what happens in Greece, Justus is confident he can achieve his goals: One, to become the youngest African-American chess master, and, later on, an international investment banker “because they make a lot of money,” he said. But, he added, “I’ll never quit chess—not while I’m winning.”