Howard University alum with chess set
Sultan-Diego LeBlond Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Wherever Sultan-Diego LeBlond goes, a chess club follows. Or maybe that’s just how it feels. Chess is that significant a part of the 25-year-old’s identity.

Instead of asking his parents for video games for his birthday in middle school, LeBlond wanted a new chess board. At Northwest High School in Germantown, joining the chess team helped LeBlond make friends and competing in tournaments took him out of Maryland for the first time. While studying for his associate’s degree in business at Montgomery College’s Germantown campus, LeBlond revived the school’s dormant chess club and became the team’s president. In 2015, he co-founded the Germantown Library chess club, where he would teach the game to children.

“I know what chess has done for me in my life,” LeBlond says. “And I knew what it has done for me, it could do for other people.”

By the time he arrived at Howard University as a transfer student in the fall of 2017, LeBlond had established himself as a seasoned chess player and organizer, but he didn’t immediately join the school’s chess club. That’s because one didn’t exist. It didn’t take long for LeBlond to change that.

In the spring of 2019, he helped Howard University officially re-activate its chess club, which had not been operating for years, with assistance from Nisa Muhammad, the school’s assistant dean for religious life (who is now the club’s adviser), and other chess enthusiasts LeBlond met on campus.

Last month, the fledgling team competed at the 2020-2021 Pan American Intercollegiate Championship, the biggest collegiate chess tournament of the year, and finished at the top of its division and 45th out of 59 teams overall. The three-day event was held virtually on and at a later date than usual. One of Howard’s members, senior Azeezah Muhammad, an unrated player heading into the tournament, scored the largest upset of the championships by beating a player with a rating in the 1200s. The United States Chess Federation uses a rating system ranging from 100 to nearly 3000; the higher the number, the stronger the player.

“It came by like a shock,” says LeBlond, who graduated from Howard last year and now serves as the club’s volunteer head coach. “We were just playing to have fun and coming in with no expectations. And so we was caught like way off guard. But at the same time, I was confident in everybody’s capabilities … Anything can happen in a game of chess.”

The history of chess at Howard University dates back more than a half-century. Digital copies of the school’s yearbook, The Bison, reveal that students participated in a chess club as early as the 1940s. There’s been an official chess club at the school “off and on” for decades, says David Mehler, president and founder of the nonprofit U.S. Chess Center located in Silver Spring.

Mehler’s father taught at Howard and Mehler himself has seen several iterations of the Howard chess club, including a team that reached “reasonably high levels” in the early 2000s. That club eventually dissolved due to lack of interest, Mehler says. And according to the university, before this year the team last competed at the Pan-Am Championship in 2005.

“I’m hopeful that with the success that the team just had, that will generate a lot more interest,” Mehler says.

Michele Bennett didn’t know about this history when she arrived at Howard University. Bennett, a sophomore, learned how to play chess from her father around the age of 8 and competed in a couple tournaments in her hometown of Las Vegas while in elementary school. She didn’t play once she got to middle school and hadn’t really thought about chess until she started college.

During her freshman year, Bennett was reading messages on the school’s GroupMe when a post about a chess club caught her attention. She reached out for more information and eventually attended the weekly practices. Less than a year later, she was elected the club’s president.

“I kind of forgot how much I love chess,” she says. “It awakened my love for chess.”

What started as a group of around a half-dozen members has evolved into a club with a group chat of more than 100 people and weekly meetings and practices that draw around 20 active members, Bennett says. Even during the pandemic, the club has held weekly gatherings on Google Meet that last more than an hour.

Bennett was one of the four players who competed at the Pan-Am Championship, along with Azeezah Muhammad and seniors Toni Anthony and Malcolm Wooten, the vice president of the club. Shortly before the tournament, organizers at the Pan-Am Championship contacted Nisa Muhammad about Howard participating in the virtual event. The club put together a team within a month’s time and called its former coach, Zahir Muhammad, for help.

Zahir is a celebrity in the D.C. chess world. A Ward 7 native, his father taught him how to play chess when he was 3 by defeating him “like 500 times in a row,” Zahir recalls. His competitiveness motivated him to keep playing. Zahir’s singular goal at the time was to beat his dad and finally, four years later, it happened. He was just getting started.

In 2018, the D.C. Council presented Zahir with a ceremonial resolution after he won the District of Columbia Scholastic Cup Chess Tournament the year prior. During his senior year at DeMatha Catholic High School, Nisa, a family friend, asked if he could help coach the newly re-activated Howard University Chess Club.

Having grown up in D.C., Zahir enjoyed visiting the Howard campus during festivals or homecoming and was familiar with the school. At 6-foot-4, he blended in with the college students. He happily agreed to be the chess club’s coach and soon became the expert voice that the players relied on.

Zahir, a Class A-rated player with a rating in the 1800s, hasn’t been as involved this past school year but was pulled in to act as a “barometer” for the team in preparation for the Pan-Am Championship. He watched the games online with pride. Throughout the tournament, Zahir thought back to the weekly practices, where members would often ask him to stay longer so they could practice more.

“It would be dark outside, cold and dark,” he says. “And we would be playing.”

As Zahir has gotten older, his motivations for playing chess have evolved. It began with wanting to beat his father. Then, Zahir wanted to win tournaments. And now, the freshman at Louisiana State University hopes that he can inspire other Black kids to pick up chess to compete in an environment that doesn’t have many Black faces. Howard University was the only HBCU that participated at the Pan-Am Championship.

The fact that the school exceeded expectations at the tournament gives him joy. Zahir believes it will inspire other Black students to pick up chess.

“It makes me feel, I would say validated, but not for me personally, but for them, because they’re all extremely talented. And they’re extremely smart,” he says. “And it makes me feel validated for them, because they can show on their level that, yeah, I’m Black, and I’m talented, and I’m smart.”

Daaim Shabazz has been writing about Black chess players for 20 years for his online magazine, The Chess Drum. An associate professor of business at Florida A&M University, Shabazz is considered by some to be an amateur historian of Black chess.

Being in D.C. gives the Howard University Chess Club certain advantages that other HBCUs may not have, Shabazz says. The chess tables at Dupont Circle have drawn some of the game’s most legendary players, and beyond that, the D.C. area has a chess culture that few cities rival.

“You have a chess history in the D.C.-Maryland area that is very well-established in terms of producing master-level players,” Shabazz says. “Particularly in the Maryland area, but D.C. as well. D.C. has a lot of pockets of activity. So Howard has an advantage in that they have the infrastructure. If they want to play in local tournaments, they can do that. It wouldn’t be a problem.”

Members of the Howard University Chess Club hope that will be the case.

Their success at the Pan-Am Championship has led to a spike in interest from students. Fascination in chess has increased during the pandemic, and the recent popular Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit contributed an even bigger boost. YouTube and Twitch have also given the centuries-old game a modern twist when it comes to spectating matches.

“One thing that chess players have been trying to do is trying to make chess look cool,” LeBlond says. “And so like, The Queen’s Gambit did a phenomenal job on that. It broke down that barrier that chess is boring, that chess is like for people that are strange or socially awkward. That’s not true. There’s cool people that play chess. And so that movie opened the door [to] what is chess.”

Nisa looks to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as a model she hopes the Howard chess club can emulate. One of the team’s long-term goals is to give out scholarships for chess, like UMBC does.

“We want Howard University’s chess club to be seen as an intellectual sport,” Nisa says. “We want the chess club to grow to where we have it endowed and funded so that we can offer chess scholarships to students who have the chess skills.”

LeBlond has the same vision, and although he is no longer a student at Howard, he intends to stay involved with the school’s chess team. Bringing back the club was only the first step. He wants to see it grow.