Three young men rise in the ranks of an unlikely game
September 22, 2016

The laughter of children filled the room.

The tramping of callow feet, back and forth, in and out of the Abraham Lincoln Hall in The Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C., reverberates throughout the entire second level of the building. In May, children ranging in age from 8 to 12 gathered for Chess Challenge in DC’s fifth annual simultaneous exhibition (“simul” in chess jargon) — a game in which one player takes on multiple players at one time. On this day, 30 children wandered to their places at the long tables lined with white-and-green-checked chessboards. They sat anxiously in sturdy white folding chairs, awaiting their turns to battle the three young chess masters from New York who traveled nearly five hours by bus just for them; three then-17-year-old chess players who became masters before they became teens: James Black Jr., Joshua Colas and Justus Williams.

Earlier that day, Black Jr., Colas and Williams were greeted by the Chess Challenge in DC’s chair and president Meg Hauge and executive director Suzy Hirsch. The young men had made the trek from New York to D.C. for the simul every year since they were 12 years old, competing against children in their age group or younger. Three months later they would be off to college to attend Webster University in Missouri.

As of September, Colas is ranked third and Black Jr. is tied for 20th in the U.S. Chess Federation’s Top 100 Age 17 category in the United States. Williams is ninth in the Top 100 Age 18 category.

“For the record, I’m like the LeBron of chess, he’s [Colas] like the Curry of chess and this man [Black Jr.] is like the Paul George,” Williams said. “He’s making a comeback, though.”

While all three masters hail from New York, they were unfamiliar with each other until chess connected them eight years ago. Black Jr. resided in Brooklyn while Williams lived in the Bronx. Colas came from Westchester County, and the young men met when they were around 9 years old and immediately clicked, largely because they all shared the same features, similar complexions and coarse hair. They were young black men in an unfamiliar world where black faces were rarely seen. Outside of chess, they also shared the same tastes in music, fashion and social interests.

“I think our bond is very unique because you don’t usually find three African-American males in any other state that’s good in the game of chess,” Colas said. “There’s usually like basketball or any other sport. We’ve known each other for about eight years and when we go to the tournaments with each other, we enjoy our time not only on the board, but in other things as well.”

Justus Williams, left, Joshua Colas, center, and James Black, Jr., right, share photos before the start of their simultanious chess matches at the Hill Center in Washington, D.C. on May 16, 2016. The three teenage chess masters share a close friendship and will all be attending Webster University on chess scholarships in the Fall.
From left to right: Justus Williams, Joshua Colas and James Black Jr. share photos before the start of their simultaneous chess matches at the Hill Center in Washington, D.C., on May 16. The three teenage chess masters share a close friendship and will all be attending Webster University on chess scholarships in the fall.


“When we go to World Youth [World Youth Chess Championship] or something outside of the country, there’s no people like us,” Williams added. “There’s no black people there or no people from New York there either. You just have to focus on being yourself because that’s what got you there.”

Black players in professional chess are quite a rarity. Tracking down the exact number of professional black chess players is difficult because the U.S. Chess Federation does not keep track of its members by ethnicity. It’s safe to guess, though, that the numbers of African-American chess players are modest. According to The Chess Drum — a website created by Florida A&M University associate professor of business Daaim Shabazz that “highlights the chess activities within the African diaspora” — there are 205 male players of African descent who hold master titles. Out of those 205, 100 are black Americans. Only 15 black American players have reached master level since 2011.

It’s a reality the three young men deal with on occasion: the shock, the doubting of their capabilities, the stereotypes. It’s also a bonding period for them. Being a young black man in uncharted territory can be scary, but together? Life becomes a little easier.

“It’s actually pretty funny for me,” Black Jr. said. “When I tell people I play chess, a lot of people tend to be like, ‘wow, you don’t look like the type.’ For me, I’m into chess, but I’m also into fashion and things like that. I’m into a lot of stuff. I feel like there’s not a real appearance for a typical chess player. You just do what you do.”

“I would say it doesn’t matter how you look, honestly,” Colas added. “It’s all what’s in the brain. I tell people a hobo could be better than you in chess. You never know.”

One place that has no qualms about appearances seems to be Webster University, where two of the chess masters are attending on full scholarships. The university, located in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, has the No. 1 ranked Division I collegiate chess team in the United States.

Colas and Williams began their first semester at Webster in August. Due to personal family matters, Black Jr. opted to sit out of college for a year, but will be attending Webster next fall. In the meantime, he will continue to compete and practice his craft.

“I’m looking forward to a new home, meeting new people and being around that environment with my teammates,” Black Jr. said. “I’m just looking forward to that challenge because there’s going to be a lot more stronger players than I am on the team and I always like playing people that are better than me because that makes me a better player. They can also give me good advice on how I can strengthen my game.”

So far, Colas and Williams have been enjoying and adjusting to their new lives in college. The young men spend the week attending required curriculum courses and using their weekends to meet with chess teammates for studying and friendly competitions. According to Williams, “chess homework” is doled out, typically three assignments, to be completed by members of the team.

One of the school’s best aspects for Colas is having free access to chess programs and books that had not previously been available.

“I think Webster is probably a good school for all of us because we got this far with chess and we might as well continue all the way,” Colas said. “Webster being highly ranked in its chess program is definitely one of the best schools for us. I feel like we can go far if we stick with chess and go to the chess programs they require us to go to. We can accomplish and achieve some goals.”

Williams agreed. “It’s kind of like a blessing in disguise because we get to go to college and we also get to play chess, so why not?”

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