RZA Preserves His Title as Hip-Hop Chess Master

Categories: Hip-Hop

Paul Moran
RZA does some chessboxin' in a trucker hat
RZA is done playing games. After spending the last hour contributing to a panel discussion about the academic and practical virtues of chess, the time has come to move his first pawn of the day and finally start kicking ass, Shaolin style.

Sitting at the center of a long, grey folding table, RZA taps the top of the small blue clock to his left, freezing time on his side of the chessboard. Now the seconds in this 10-minute round tick down for his first opponent, freckle-faced, square jawed Jiu Jitsu fighter Ralek Gracie--a grandson of Helio Gracie. He looks up at RZA, smirks and makes his counter move. With the first round of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation's eight man Chess King's Invitational tournament officially underway, the stuffy room in the back of the Anaheim Business Expo takes on a zen-like rhythm.

Grunts and whispered shit talking weave between the sharp clicks and clacks of the game clocks as tracks from the HHCF's chess-inspired hip hop mixtape Street Games Vol. 1 bump at low volume in the background. Players on the single table are squared off to do battle in what could be the most random chess-related event to ever happen in Orange County. And probably the most important as far as hip-hop heads are concerned.

See also: RZA to Defend His Chess Championship in Anaheim This Weekend

On Sunday, the Wu Tang Clan's founding member defended his title in the annual timed chess tournament. RZA (a.k.a. Bobby Digital) won the first HHCF heavyweight title belt in 2007. Having ruffled the feathers of some very sensitive Wu Tang fans last week by failing to acknowledge RZA's love and dedication of the game (how many of you really knew he was an HHCF chess champion, though?), the least we could do was cruise in and check it out.

HHCF, a non-profit based in San Francisco's Mission District, partnered with another (slightly more physical) tournament for Jiu Jitsu, the KO Finisher, along with the LA Chess Club and crowdfunding site crowdtilt.com to bring the event to the Anaheim Business Expo this year. When we arrived, the KO Finisher tournament was still in full effect in the main hall of the venue, which seemed like a weird thing to encounter in the same building as a chess tournament. Throngs of buff dudes with gis, taped fingers and cauliflower ear congregated around sweaty, blue mats partaking in an entirely different sort of chess match as opponents tucked, rolled and wrestled their way to victory/defeat.

With the sweaty odor of battle funneling it's way into the backroom chess hall, HHCF founder Adisa "The Bishop" Banjoko began an opening afternoon panel discussion about the link between chess, hip-hop, martial arts and education. RZA sauntered in moments before with a grey and black trucker hat and dark-rimmed specs, towing a minor entourage that included his brother Terrance Hamlin, a rapper also known as The 9th Prince--basically a swole version of RZA in a tight red t-shirt. The family resemblance is obvious and the two even sport similar large frame glasses.

Paul Moran
The Hip Hop Chess panel discussion, "Mind Over Matter"
Also on the panel are Emilio Rivera (better known as "Alvarez" from Sons of Anarchy) and Rakaa Iriscience of revered L.A. rap outfit Dilated Peoples. Other speakers included Andrew McGregor, the founder of a club called LA Chessboxing who was rocking an adult one-piece pajama suit made to look like a chessboard and a homemade crown atop his head, Sergio Flores, the assistant superintendent for the Partnership of L.A. Schools, and Santee High School principal Dr. Martin Gomez.

Though most were lured to the event by the promise of a board game throwdown, the early panel discussion quickly reminded us that the HHCF was more about promoting their desire to get chess implemented in schools, especially in the inner city.

"In my opinion, you play chess, do martial arts or write lyrics, you gotta think ahead, you gotta have a format in your head and a formulation of thoughts. And if most of the kids where I grew up would think one or two moves ahead, they would avoid teenage pregnancy, crime..." he trails off into a story about holding up liquor stores as a youngster in Brooklyn, long before the days of Wu. Basically, chess and the arts, RZA says, are two major keys in transforming our public education system into something better than a failing institution like LAUSD that only graduates 50 percent of its kids. No argument there.

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