Inside the Deanwood Chess House, youngsters are told that “big moves” only lead to a bad end—on the game board and on the streets.
Eugene Brown wishes he’d realized that when he was a kid.
Brown, now 55, fulfilled a longtime goal last fall when, with the help of friends in the D.C. chess community, he inaugurated the no-checkers facility. After using contacts in real estate to purchase an abandoned house in a commercially zoned block off Minnesota Avenue NE on the cheap, he gave the building all the TLC needed to convert it into a clubhouse. If you can find Deanwood, you can find the Chess House: No other building in the neighborhood has a full complement of oversized chess pieces screwed into its facade.
Four days and nights each week, kids are welcome to hang out at the clubhouse and get lessons from Brown or others who believe in spreading the gospel of the medieval game. Boards, pieces, clocks, and knowledge are provided free of charge. Nobody is turned away.
As a player, Brown doesn’t claim to be a marvel. He’ll admit that guys whom Bobby Fischer could beat while blindfolded could beat him with their backs to the board. And although his new group is officially sanctioned by the U.S. Chess Federation, the nation’s premier promoter of competitive chess, cranking out highly rated players isn’t what the Deanwood Chess House is all about.
“‘Think before you move,’” Brown says. “That’s really our mission statement. That’s what we focus on with the kids. You get yourself into a position you don’t like, you better get yourself out of that position. Chess taught me that impulsive moves don’t work, and I really believe that knowledge is what saved me in the real world. A lot of the kids we’re reaching out to at the club, they need to learn that lesson.”
He took up the pastime that ultimately became his salvation about 30 years ago. At the time, he was incarcerated in a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa. The big move that originally landed him in the big house, Brown says, was a poorly conceived and executed attempt to rob a bank at 8th and H Streets NE. He hadn’t thought of a suitable exit strategy before launching his criminal gambit, and he was quickly caught. That stint started two decades of bouncing in and out of jail, mostly for drug-related offenses.
Initially, chess merely helped him zone out from the darker sights and sounds around him, those parts of prison life that Brown refers to only as “the bad things.” But when he got his mind clear and his body off drugs, in the late ’80s, Brown says, chess became more than a game. It occurred to him that a guy who could think his way through a chess match would be better prepared to handle life on the outside.
“In chess, you can’t blame anybody for your position but yourself,” he says. “Life was easier once I accepted that.”
When he got out of jail for the last time, in 1989—he swears he’s been clean and sober for more than a decade now—Brown came back to his old haunts in Fairfax Village and got involved with the local street-chess scene, which he describes as thriving and heavily populated with fellow ex-cons. He pushed pawns with his new friends at known chess hangouts including Dupont Circle, long the city’s street-chess hub, and under a crosswalk near the Big Chair in Southeast.
And Brown began publicly promoting his worldview. He organized exhibitions with so-called street masters at neighborhood festivals such as Unifest, Anacostia’s huge annual summer soiree. Buoyed by the support of local power brokers including the Rev. Willie Wilson of the Union Temple Baptist Church, in 1993 he helped start a competitive team at Kimball Elementary School.
The Kimball program, which he still oversees, produced scads of city champions and won proclamations from politicos. But those successes didn’t dim his vision of one day setting up the city’s first Afrocentric chess center in the ‘hood.
Now, with the Deanwood Chess House open for business, he’s done so.
James Taylor, a longtime fixture on the Dupont Circle chess scene who goes by the name Black Knight when he hits the boards, has of late been taking his game off the streets to support Brown’s efforts with the kids.
“Eugene Brown is to be commended,” says Taylor. “Just by opening the club where he opened it, that makes him a pioneer. There’s never been a chess house like that in this city.”
Being a pioneer, by itself, doesn’t pay the bills. Brown says that the D.C. government has been generous with its praise of his efforts—Mayor Anthony A. Williams came to the Deanwood Chess House’s grand opening—but hasn’t forked over any funds just yet. So the facility has survived with the help of a lot of volunteers, including Taylor and other street masters, and whatever money Brown can scare up from friends and his own bank accounts. (Brown says that he’s currently trying to get super-Skin LaVar Arrington, a self-professed chess addict, involved in the crusade.)
Even as he works out the long-term financing plan for his new hangout, Brown sees plenty of evidence that his mission remains a worthy one. The mother of an oft-troubled Deanwood Chess House pupil, he says, called recently just to impart that her child now sleeps with the chess board Brown gave him.
“Hearing that he’s so interested in chess, well, that was the best Christmas present I got this year,” Brown says. —Dave McKenna
Anyone interested in hanging out at or helping with the Deanwood Chess House can contact Eugene Brown at (202) 396-1780.