A block from Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Junior High in Harlem, bars, nightclubs and stand-up pizza joints are strung out like plastic pearls on a dime-store necklace. Across the street, a homeless man who has been sleeping on the curb slowly disentangles himself from cardboard and newspapers, gets up and limps over to some other guys slugging pints of cheap booze from paper bags.
At 7 a.m., an hour before chess practice begins and almost two hours before classes start at Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Michael Johnson and the rest of the Raging Rooks pick their way through the chaos of the inner city to Room 110, where Richard Gudonsky usually teaches science. Amid charts depicting a frog's digestive system and the reproductive cycle of the earthworm, the Rooks pair off and square off on Gudonsky's chessboard battlefields.
Gudonsky coaches the Rooks in chess fundamentals. Twice a week Maurice Ashley, an instructor from the Manhattan Chess Club School, instills the finer points of the game, and they helped the Rooks tie for first place last April at the junior high U.S. Chess Federation championships in Dearborn, Mich. The Rooks ripped 61 other teams, including the defending champs from New York City's Dalton School, whose $12,600 high school tuition exceeds the yearly salary of many of the Rooks' parents.
"Nobody expects young blacks from Harlem to do well at anything but basketball," says Ashley. "But these kids have checkmated all sorts of facile assumptions—that inner city black kids can't learn, that they're not as smart as whites."
"They're children of impoverishment," says Gudonsky. "Some have crack-addicted mothers or abusive stepfathers."
The captain of last season's team, Kasaun Henry, stayed in a single-room-occupancy hotel for part of the school year after his family's apartment was torched. "These kids can achieve at anything, given half a chance," says Gudonsky.
The Rooks are not child geniuses. "They're just pretty sharp 13- and 14-year-olds who respond well to coaching and put in lots of hard work," says Gudonsky.
Most are solid B students who devote more time to chess than to homework. "The neighborhood I live in has a lot of dope—a lot of people pushing it, a lot of people killing each other for it," says Johnson. "Chess kind of takes my mind away from all that."
Rook alumnus Charu Robinson, who lives around the corner from four crack houses, says the spartan discipline that chess requires helped land him a scholarship to Dalton, where he's now a ninth-grader.
"Charu is in another world," says Gudonsky. "He still hasn't gotten over the fact that Dalton's baseball team flies to Florida during their spring break."