WEST POINT — Chance Dumas rested his head on his hands, staring intently at the chess board with as serious a look as any second-grader can muster. Playing black, he deliberately moved his bishop diagonally across the board to capture an opponent’s piece, taking his prize off the board and placing it on the side, never changing expression.
If Harold Lathon’s wishes come true, soon there will be plenty of other people, kids and adults, staring intently at chess boards on Saturday mornings in the Ester Pippen Meeting Room in West Point’s Bryan Public Library.
Lathon, a basketball star at West Point High School (Class of 1976) and a two-time mayoral candidate, feels very strongly about the value of chess, especially for young people.
“It gives them self-discipline, teaches the consequences of their actions or inactions,” he said after the initial meeting of the Fifth Street Bombers Chess Club on Saturday. “Should I make that move; should I not make that move? It also provides an opportunity to prepare them with some life skills going forward: perseverance, endurance, concentration, math even.”
Lathon sounds almost wistful as he talks about the West Point of his youth.
“Church, school or basketball was my life,” he said, fondly recalling stories of the hours spent on the basketball courts on Fifth Street, calling it a rite of passage lacking in today’s youth.
“Basketball courts provided a learning experience for those who were trying to learn the game but also a very nurturing and mentoring environment with older players and adults who saw the interaction on the basketball courts as more than just a game,” Lathon said. “Chess is quite similar to that.”
Of course, even if the basketball courts were there, the demands of the game would mean some people would not benefit. Enter chess.
“Since the basketball courts are no longer there, and a lot of kids didn’t have the talent, physically, to play the game, but everyone’s got a mind,” Lathon said. “Chess is a sport. It doesn’t require much of the physical, but the strategy is no different from football or basketball, and maybe even moreso.”
Although the dreary weather probably helped keep turnout low, players aged 7 to 70 made the trek to the library. Lathon said he was almost moved to tears hearing Herbert Gunn tell him how Lathon’s mother, a longtime teacher in town, taught him to read and of the impact she had on him.
Paulette Richmond Lathon taught for years at Fifth Street Junior-Senior High School before integration and then became the first African-American teacher at Central School. To this day, Lathon supports a summer reading program at the library in her name.
And he appreciates the library’s role in helping get the chess club off the ground.
“I’m so glad for the partnership I have with the Bryan Public Library for allowing us to have the classes here,” Lathon said. “It really provides a good, clean, safe, wholesome environment.”
And the library is delighted to have the club meet there.
“It’s exciting news for our community and the Bryan Public Library to be in partnership in hosting for these chess classes,” Bryan librarian Priscilla Ivy said. “By giving our children and our community this opportunity to learn an engaging game while acquiring important life skills, chess will be at the forefront of developing our next generation of leaders.”
One potential next-generation leader is Naythanis Montgomery, a student at West Point High School.
“We had a young lady here today, 13 years old, and she said she wanted to play, and she’s an athlete,” Lathon said. “You rarely find athletes who also know how to play chess at the age of 13, in this community.
“I was somewhat surprised, but she made it a point to say that the toughest games that she’s had were not playing soccer or basketball, but some of the chess matches she had with her brother.”
That is music to the ears of Lathon, who circled the room playing simultaneously against everyone who came to the library, the way American chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer used to do. That seems only reasonable, considering that Lathon’s interest in the game started when he saw a copy of “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” in the library.
For young Chance, the introduction was more direct: He is Lathon’s nephew.
“When I came to see my auntie and my uncle, I started to play chess,” the 7-year-old Dumas said. “I never played before.”
He said he enjoys when his uncle quizzes him on the pieces, and on this day he always had the right answer.
“It’s a pretty competitive game, and I think I can get on to it,” he said. “I just like playing chess.”
Lathon knows that all the good chess can provide means nothing if the game is not enjoyed. The image of the game can be somewhat intimidating, but the atmosphere in the Fifth Street Bombers Chess Club should remove that obstacle.
Said Lathon: “We’re just excited that we’ll be able to touch some of the hearts and minds of the students and adults who may want to find some fun in the game of chess.”
The club meets Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon at the library, and although there will be a break during the holidays, meetings will be on a regular weekly schedule starting Jan. 8. For more information, contact Lathon at 769-226-6486.