Players face off at chess tournament outside Hollins Market

Allex Venable looks over the board as he plays in the Hollins Market Amateur Chess tournament.
Allex Venable looks over the board as he plays in the Hollins Market Amateur Chess tournament. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

The concentration was palpable as a second round of chess matches got underway outside Hollins Market, and silence replaced friendly chatter between the pairs of players as each pondered his next move.

About 40 players faced off Saturday afternoon in what Kim Hicks hopes becomes the first annual Father's Day weekend amateur chess tournament at the market. Hicks, who owns Quiet Time Inspirations and Gifts in Hollins Market, started the tournament as a way to celebrate June and draw customers to the market. The competition drew players from across the city who want to see the game's presence grow in Baltimore.


"I try to do something every month to celebrate that month," Hicks said. "Father's Day — it's like people forget, but there's so many great fathers in Baltimore City and all around that we just wanted to do something to celebrate fathers."

She was inspired to host a chess tournament in part by the customers who admire the chess sets she sells at her shop, and she partnered with Sophia Lynn of Chess R Us to bring the idea to life. What resulted was a setup of six folding tables outside the market's Carrollton Avenue entrance, each with up to three pairs of players. Green-and-white boards topped each table with black and white pieces.


It was a calm afternoon, aside from a few startling booms from nearby construction.

"If you can play chess around here, you can play chess anywhere," Thomas Coplin noted after one crash resounded through the block.

Hicks dubbed the event the King's Pawn Tournament, named for Ethan Riley's first move of his first game. Ethan, 12, was the youngest player there when the tournament kicked off at 1 p.m., but two 10-year-olds who weren't present at roll call competed throughout the afternoon.

Initially organizers had planned on a single-elimination style tournament, but when only 40 of 60 registered players showed up, time allowed for each competitor to play five games.

Most competitors Saturday were men, with one girl and a few boys. Many of the players who turned out Saturday were registered with the United States Chess Federation, and they were paired by their scores.

Coplin, who coaches children in the Baltimore Kids Chess League, is working to get more children involved in the game amid competing interests like basketball and football. He said he tries to reel them in with tales of the prize money and scholarships that strong chess players can win.

"My problem is retention," he said. "After a couple years, my best players, they're more interested in wrestling."

Tavon Carter, 30, is one player who tried chess as a teenager in Harlem Park and never looked back.

"I went in there just because there was girls in the class. Then I started winning," said Carter, now a chess coach and mentor who won Saturday's tournament and took home the $100 prize.

One year he took home $100,000 in prize money from different competitions, he said. He'll head to the World Open chess tournament in Philadelphia in two weeks for the chance to win a $20,000 prize.

On Saturday, the Little Flowers educator faced off in a black T-shirt with "Chess God" embroidered in white on the back. He was confident midway through the tournament. "I'm probably going to win every game," he said.

Many players Saturday spoke of the attributes learned through chess that can be applied outside of the game, such as strategy, sportsmanship, respect and commitment.


"It's competitive and it makes kids take ownership when they lose," said Keith Pittman. "He's just better. Some of us don't want to admit that."

Another player, Bryant Watkins, said instead of guns and drugs, he wants to see the city's kids picking up chess pieces.

"In Baltimore, Maryland, there's so much violence and stuff," he said. "We wanted to give them a chance to find something else."


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