How an impromptu chess lesson to teen basketball players turned into a hit summer camp

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Earlier this summer, Israel Crooks brought a chess set to a basketball game in a Hamilton park, and after noticing kids weren’t playing ball strategically, he introduced them to the board game. A few free ad hoc lessons became a full summer series for teens eager to learn from a man who grew up playing chess in Jamaica.

Israel Crooks teaches chess in the park

Hamilton man Israel Crooks teaches chess in Victoria Park to curious young people. 2:09

Israel Crooks has two passions — art and chess.

For now, his hope for life as a professional artist is a dream deferred. But playing chess is a reality he’s brought to teens in Hamilton these past few weeks. 

On weekday afternoons, you’ll find Crooks, his shade tents and his chess sets — one with pieces the size of small dogs — set up at the eastern end of the busy Victoria Park in the city’s downtown. 

Crooks, 47, teaches a small group of neighbourhood kids what he calls “the most beautiful game I have ever seen in my life.”

The native of Jamaica paces between the tables he’s set up, cajoling, counselling and kidding his charges toward a strategic understanding of the ways of the world, wrought in miniature pieces on his checked battlefields.

He is part comic, mugging for the kids, part sage, wisely stroking his chin in thoughtful contemplation. He monitors the kids’ progress, moving from board to board with the erratic freedom of a knight on the attack.

Adam Alsafadl, 12, shown in Hamiton’s Victoria Park, and his older brother Yousef, 14, were two of Crooks’s first Chess in the Park students. (Wayne MacPhail)

Crooks was first exposed to chess at age 10 in Montego Bay. He deepened his skill year by year as he earned a degree in biochemistry and then moved to Hamilton in 2002 to join his wife, who had already arrived and settled in. Here, he honed his game even more, through hours of play at the Hamilton Public Library and between shifts at the city’s factories. 

I noticed the kids weren’t playing [basketball] strategically. I told them we need to play chess.​​​​​– Israel Crooks

About a month ago, he brought a chess set to a basketball game in the park. 

“I noticed the kids weren’t playing [basketball] strategically,” he says. “I told them we need to play chess.” 

His set ended up on the court and the boys gathered around to watch Crooks moving pieces in an intricate dance of intrigue. 

“They asked me to teach them,” Crooks recalls. 

He started with a few free ad hoc lessons and then, with the aid of a flyer his wife put together, more formal, for-fee (15 sessions, $225) Chess in the Park classes. 

Israel Crooks’ love of chess began as a kid in Montego Bay, Jamaica. He is now teaching kids in Hamilton to play. (Wayne MacPhail)

Adam Alsafadl, 12, and his older brother Yousef, 14, were two of Crooks’s first students. 

On this day late in August, the boys quietly watched as Crooks demonstrated a queen sacrifice and explained the traits of a poisoned pawn. 

Adam had never played chess before, but started coming every day to absorb the game from Crooks.

“I learned a lot of strategy, tactics, openings. I think it will help me a lot with other stuff, like in school,” Adam said.

Still holding onto his artist dream

The summer session for the classes is over now, but Crooks, who has also worked as a Mohawk College instructor and has a bachelor of education degree, has plans to extend the course into the fall. 

“We will see what comes,” he said. 

As for his dream of becoming a professional painter? He hopes, in two years, to study in France.

“That is my real passion, to be a true artist,” Crooks said. 

He says his wife, a business analyst, supports him chasing his dreams.

“She is so, so supportive,” he said, and laughs. “I owe her. Huge.”

King’s advance, queen’s gambit. Clearly, chess runs in the family. 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

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