Homewood CEC Chess Club
Donald "Pawn Instructor" Boyd, June Bug (aka Jedi), Bill Scott (aka The School Teacher), Officer Dave Shifren. Photo by Tony Norman.

There has always been trash-talking in sports like basketball and football. Pro wrestling derives its legitimacy from the quality of the trash-talking by glowering behemoths vying for supremacy in the squared circle. But chess?

Several months ago I wrote about trash-talking and ferocious playing among older pool hustlers at a recreation center in East Liberty. It didn’t take long for another venerable sport — 1,400 years old by most estimates — to come to my attention because of the familiar litany of trash-talking. 

The men and women who gather to play friendly but raucous rounds of chess every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon at the University of Pittsburgh’s Community Engagement Centers in Homewood and the Hill District have never treated it like “the Game of Kings” it was billed as in ancient India where the game was born.

The folks who came together to play recently at the Homewood CEC have colorful nicknames like June Bug, Toby a.k.a. Sho ‘Nuff of Shaolin Temple #9, School Teacher, the Pawn Instructor, whose motto is “seek and destroy,” and Master Brown.

“I call myself the Jedi,” said a player the others call June Bug. “I control players with weak minds.” His friend Sho ‘Nuff a.k.a. the New Bully accused June Bug of hamming it up.

A lively debate broke out about whether chess was stressful or not. Several of the players who regularly play chess in the Hill District loudly announced that the neighborhood produces the city’s best players. “We’re the best in Pittsburgh,” a Hill District player who was visiting Homewood said, “and we regularly prove it.”

There were no women present on the day I visited, but they, like the men, have nicknames and no shortage of confidence. On any given day, most of the chess board combatants are middle-aged or older, overwhelmingly African American and inclined toward hyping their mastery of a game that recognizes no caste system. A full house might be as many as 15 to 20 people.

Hill District chess club. Courtesy of Dave Shifren.

Donald Boyd, aka Pawn Instructor, has been playing the game for decades. He even taught neighborhood kids to play the game during classes conducted at the Homewood Library decades ago. 

One of Boyd’s proudest moments is captured in a black and white photo featuring WQED’s Fred Rogers visiting his chess club at the Homewood Library sometime in the 1990s.

“Now you’re in my neighborhood,” he told the children’s television icon while conducting the tour. The way Pawn Instructor recalls that moment caused his chess-playing buddies to crack up. Sassing Mr. Rogers to his face was Olympic-level trash-talking as far as they were concerned.

“Learning this game teaches kids the skills they need in everyday life,” said Bill Scott, aka The School Teacher. “It helps them to think ten steps ahead.”

This is a lesson that Pittsburgh Police Officer Dave Shifren, the man who started clubs in Homewood and the Hill District, has known for years. Shifren started a chess club for kids and teenagers six years ago in Hazelwood before establishing similar clubs in Brookline, Beechview and Knoxville. The pandemic shut down many of those programs that were housed in schools and libraries.

Undaunted, Shifren moved the chess clubs to Market Square because they were open-air. To his surprise, kids didn’t show up in the numbers they used to, but curious adults did. Before he knew it, Shifren had an older, more experienced constituency of players.

Hill District adult chess club. Courtesy of Dave Shifren.

He opened the first chess club for adults in the Hill District. It was followed by the club in Homewood. This success led to the revival of chess clubs for kids around the city. Shifren believes that interest among very young players is still there because attendance is growing.

Shifren will be familiar to readers of this column as the driving force behind book discussion groups for adults that meet in both the Hill District and Homewood’s Community Engagement Centers. Instead of walking a beat all day, Shifren’s role on the force has shifted to that of community engagement officer whose interest in literature, screenwriting and chess has served him and the department well, especially in neighborhoods with troubled relations with police. Knowing how to listen and tell stories works to his advantage.

Always thinking of the next angle, Shifren is considering starting a movie screening discussion group. 

Gerald Smith, the only player wearing a mask that afternoon, jokes that Shifren, who is always in uniform “doesn’t have to walk a beat around us.”

At one point, two players concentrating on a game are exchanging chess pieces at lightning speed, making it look easy.

“My level of play isn’t as good as these guys,” Shifren said, “but after 40 years of teaching, I can teach someone who is at zero and bring them to a two or a three where I’m at. I can’t take them to an eight or a nine like these guys.”

Donald “Pawn Instructor” Boyd with Fred Rogers and an unknown boy at the Homewood Library sometime in the 1990s. Photo courtesy of Donald Boyd.

When I asked how many of them were ever ranked by professional chess federations, most of their hands went up. Turns out, many of the players were ranked decades ago, but life interfered. They worked jobs and raised families, but they still played the game when they could. They’re older now, but they look forward to playing folks as good as they are, if not better, because it is the only way to improve their game.

The chess club hosted by the Hill District CEC meets on Tuesdays, from noon to 3:30 p.m. at 1908 Wylie Ave. The chess club hosted by the Homewood CEC meets on Thursdays, from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. at 622 N. Homewood Ave.

On Tuesday, May 2, 33-year-old Edgar Colon Melendez — the 8th highest rated player in the history of Puerto Rico, who’s also a graduate student at Pitt — will visit the Hill District CEC to meet members and play chess.

When Shifren retires from the Pittsburgh Police in a year, he hopes he’ll be able to continue working with all the clubs he started and maintain the friendships he’s made across the thin blue line that separates too many cops from the communities they patrol. 

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

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Tony NormanColumnist & Co-host of In Other News

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.