Vaughn Bennett could be the only chess activist on the planet. Last weekend, members of the Metropolitan Police Department hauled Bennett away from a downtown chess tournament in handcuffs.

Bennett was booked on one charge of unlawful entry. On his way out, Bennett railed that black kids are being denied the opportunities that white kids have in chess.

“All I did was speak out about race and D.C. chess,” says Bennett of his arrest. “And for that, I lost my freedom.”

After Bennett spent a couple of days in a variety of city jail cells, the count was dropped and he was released. The arrest, though Bennett’s first official chess-related scrape with the law, stems from a decadelong dispute with local chess authorities.

Bennett, who is black, operates the Olympic Chess House, a club that meets in local libraries and elementary schools around the city. Before starting the group, he had a six-year career with the D.C. Fire Department, a tenure marked by his frequently speaking out about injustice in the department. His subsequent 1999 attempt to start a volunteer fire department in D.C. failed. Bennett’s tenure as a chess executive, a nonpaying position, has been marked by his frequently speaking out about injustice in chess. He foists blame for the perceived racism on a white guy, David Mehler.

Mehler is executive director of the U.S. Chess Center, a nonprofit group headquartered at 15th and M Streets NW. The facility has long been the hub of competitive chess in this area. Among the tournaments the center hosts each winter are the D.C. Junior Open and the D.C. Closed Scholastic Championships. Mehler organizes these competitions for the D.C. Chess League (DCCL), the local affiliate of the U.S. Chess Federation, the premier sanctioning body of chess in this country. The DCCL has certified the two events as the official qualifying tournaments for the Denker Tournament of Champions, a national championship for prep players at which thousands of dollars of scholarship money are up for grabs. Mehler, though host of the qualifying tournaments, does not run the DCCL; its president is Ralph Mikell, a founding member of the Black Knights, the city’s first chess team exclusively for African-Americans.

The 2002 Denker Tournament will be held in July in Cherry Hill, N.J. Johnny Sadoff, a senior at Edmund Burke High School, a private school in Northwest Washington, finished first among city students in both the D.C. Junior Open and the D.C. Closed Scholastic Championships, and will represent D.C. at this year’s Denker. Sadoff has also represented D.C. at the Denker for the past four years.

Bennett, for at least the past three years, has assailed Sadoff’s repeat Denker invitations as proof that D.C. chess in general, and specifically Mehler, is racist. Bennett has lodged his protests on Internet sites sponsored by out-of-town chess organizations and to anybody who happens to be at the U.S. Chess Center when he makes his infrequent visits there. Bennett’s rants usually include mention that Sadoff, whom he regularly refers to as “that Caucasian child,” goes to private school, and that Sadoff’s mother is a board member of the U.S. Chess Center. Bennett downplays the fact that Mikell, not Mehler, is officially in charge of the DCCL, saying that Mikell is just “a puppet” of Mehler’s.

“How can David Mehler send that Caucasian child year after year?” Bennett says. “Every time [Sadoff] goes to the Denker, another public-school student loses the opportunity to compete for a college scholarship.”

Mehler says Bennett has shown personal animosity toward him since they first met, in the late ’80s at a now-defunct club known as the D.C. Chess House. “He came in the room and told me that my color was all wrong for the Chess House, and that the place was only for players whose tans were much darker than mine,” says Mehler. “He didn’t even know me.”

Though they’ve gotten to know each other somewhat over the years, the relationship hasn’t improved. Mehler, who draws a salary for running the center, says Bennett’s use of Sadoff’s Denker invitations shows how meritless the racism tirades are. “Johnny Sadoff earned the right to go to the Denker this year and every year by playing in the qualifying tournaments and finishing higher than any other student,” says Mehler. “The tournaments are open to any student who wants to play, in public school or private, and he finished highest, so he goes.”

According to Mehler, Sadoff’s mother was on the board of directors but is no longer a board member. On the subject of conflicts of interest, Mehler points out that two years ago Bennett founded his own chess tournament for students and scheduled it for the same weekend as the D.C. Junior, a Denker qualifier. Bennett says he chose the January date of his competition to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, not to go head-to-head with Mehler, though Bennett’s event is not held on the King holiday weekend. Bennett has appealed to the D.C. Chess League and to city school officials to have winners of his tournament, and not Mehler’s, sent to the Denker. Those efforts have gotten nowhere thus far.

“I was at a meeting with Vaughn Bennett and members of the [D.C. school system] to talk about this situation,” Mehler recalls. “But the meeting broke up as soon as Bennett started calling people ‘Uncle Tom’ and yelling that everybody was going to hear from his lawyer. Nobody has ever backed up his accusations about me.” (Bennett remembers telling only one school official at the meeting “that he was like Sambo from Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”)

Asserts Mehler: No objective observer would argue that Sadoff needs behind-the-scenes help to whup the competition in D.C.: The U.S. Chess Federation, the premier sanctioning body in the game, rates Sadoff “several hundred points higher than any other student in the city,” Mehler says. (Sadoff’s rating is also several hundred points higher than Bennett’s.)

“But Vaughn Bennett doesn’t ever mention [Sadoff’s rating],” Mehler says. “He just wants to tell everybody that I’m a racist, and to be disruptive of whatever we’re doing at the center.”

On the day of Bennett’s arrest, Mehler was hosting a tournament for about 150 beginners when he heard that his longtime nemesis had entered the U.S. Chess Center. He says Bennett began disturbing young registrants with his “usual” rants about Mehler and Sadoff, and that before police arrived Bennett, approached him in a bullying manner and repeatedly set off a camera flash “inches from my face.”

“He knows he’s not welcome here,” Mehler says. “This wasn’t the first time we’ve called the police on him. It was just the first time the police showed up.”

Bennett says that until he arrived at the center he had no idea a tournament was being held, and claims that until the police arrived he was unaware he wasn’t welcome. He says he made the trip only to get a refund for a chess set that he had purchased there. He admits “discussing” his problems with Mehler and Sadoff with people at the center and says he “may have” taken pictures of the chess players and Mehler, but denies acting like a bully.

“I always have my camera with me and take a lot of pictures,” Bennett says. “What’s unusual about that?”

Well, nothing much. Not when compared with being hauled away from a beginner’s chess tournament in handcuffs. —Dave McKenna