Orange and navy blue balloons arch beneath one of the basketball hoops in Whitney Young’s gymnasium. The school’s band—wearing Orange t-shirts—is seated at the opposite end of the court.
But the pending celebration has nothing to do with the school’s top-ranked basketball team winning last night’s Chicago Public League semi-finals against Orr Academy Thursday night.
“We’re celebrating our chess team winning state and we’re having a pep rally for them,” said Felicia Clotworthy, director of student services at Whitney Young.
“I think this is pretty great,” said Paul Kash, the chess team’s head coach. “This is our third championship, our last two we were in the auditorium and it was just the 7th and 8th graders that they brought in. So this is our first time in the gym. We’re going to run for the paper like the football team. Do it up.”
There are 11 students on the team.
“Our top player is #4 in the nation,” Kash said of senior Sam Schmakel. He said the team’s experience ranges widely.
Jimi Akintonde, the team’s number two player, said he’s been playing chess since I was 6-years-old.
“My mother taught me how to play,” he said.
Bailey Baker, one of the two girls on the team, said it’s been about six months.
“I walked in there by accident,” she said of her first practice.
Kiana Hobbs, the team’s only other girl, started in 7th grade at the request of her brother.
“It’s a much bigger program in the state than people realize,” Kash said. “There’s 1500 kids at this state tournament.”
Chicago Public Schools has gotten criticism for how few district schools run strong chess programs.
“Quite honestly, I wish I could say that our success would somehow create a momentum and more chess in CPS,” Kash said. “But it seems like there’s a lot of resistance that we can’t seem to break through.”
For the individual players on the Whitney Young chess team, it was an unusual day in the spotlight.
Jimi Akintonde, a junior, is Young’s second best player and will take the top spot next year when Sam Schmakel graduates. He says school wide pep rallies are usually reserved for, “the swim team, the basketball team, it’s not typically the chess team.”
The team ran through a big paper banner with the word “CHECKMATE” painted across it in orange and blue. The cheerleaders, the Pom Pom and Dance squads did routines and students chanted from the bleachers. Kash presented the team’s third championship trophy to the school’s principal, Joyce Kenner.
As for that winning basketball team? They cheered right along in the front row.
Becky Vevea is a producer for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.
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