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Black Squares Has Big Plans To Bring Chess To More Black St. Louisans

Lara Hamdan
St. Louis Public Radio
Justus Williams (center) leads the courses for Black Squares training sessions.

When Justus Williams was about 8 years old, his mom signed him up for a chess program on a whim. Luckily for him, he was a natural. By age 12, the Bronx native became the youngest African American National Master. He’s traveled the world to compete in tournaments and received a full-ride scholarship to Webster University to play chess.

Lara Hamdan
Black Squares hosts free training weekend sessions at the Cortex Innovation Community center.

Now Williams wants to funnel that knowledge to children in St. Louis. He partnered with the Dream Builders 4 Equity nonprofit to create Black Squares. Its mission is to bring Black culture to chess by introducing the game to more Black children. Its initiatives are not limited to Black players, though; anyone with limited access to the game is welcome to participate.

That includes free training weekend sessions at the Cortex Innovation Community center. They kicked off last month and will be held every other week.

“There's just really no chess scene here with Black faces in it,” Williams said on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

Williams added that he’s a product of New York’s chess scene.

“[Washington Square Park] is what makes chess really big in New York,” he said. “And I was able to travel there and just play every weekend with the guys there, and most of them are Black. So I know how important [it was] as a youth, just to realize that there are other Black people that play chess and that are really good at it, and that they can teach you something.”

Lara Hamdan
Studies show that chess helps players increase their concentration levels and memory power.

Michael Woods, Dream Builders 4 Equity’s executive director, explained that the organization is working on creating a chess park in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood of north St. Louis. He hopes it will be the first of many.

“We want this to be something that we can model in other communities and other neighborhoods, and potentially having chess parks all over St. Louis city,” he said. “And then having competitions between Hyde Park and the Central West End, giving the city an opportunity to engage with folks they normally wouldn't.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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