Yuri Smith walked into a small cafe in Carmel on a recent Saturday morning, laid a large chess board mat across his table and flipped open his laptop.
It was 9:40 a.m., 20 minutes before he was set to welcome a class of about 25 students who are part of Indy’s Inner-City Chess Club. The class is on Zoom, but he goes live on Facebook or Instagram so others can see him at work in his Nike polo with the chess club’s brand displayed.
“Who can tell me, what’s the first step in drawing our chess board?” he asked the students. The answer: Draw a square.
Smith has been teaching chess since not long after his uncle taught him how to play as a child, and his services have been in high demand since.
While at Crispus Attucks Middle School, Smith, also a gifted basketball player, became the 1997 Super National Individual K-8 Under 1,000 Champion when he was 13. He went undefeated through seven rounds in Knoxville, Tennessee. (The 1,000 references the Elo rating system used in chess.)
That title led to other tournaments around the country — in Arizona, Ohio, Illinois — and Canada.
“Chess gave me that confidence to go into the room and say, ‘We might be the only Blacks in this chess tournament here; however, when we leave outta here, you’re gonna know who we are,’” said Smith, who graduated from Franklin College and now works at the Center for Leadership Development.
Chess makes you think. It makes you analyze your moves and those of your opponent, weighing the benefits and consequences each time.
Those are some of the lessons Smith wants students to learn through his chess club. He typically hosts two sessions per year — in the spring and toward the end of summer. It’s a 10-week session that meets for an hour at a time. Smith teaches one session on Thursday and another on Saturday.
Packages to attend range from $200 to $500, though Smith said he’s trying to get more financial support so he can take the program to schools that have requested it. Learn more at innercitychess.com.
Smith calls chess the game of life. He grew up at Harding and 21st streets, an area that “checked all the boxes” for poverty, crime and so on.
“The data says we are supposed to be in jail, dead or addicted to something right now,” Smith said, “or working a job that we can’t properly take care of our families.”
Embracing those lessons and confidence was a major part of what propelled Smith and a dozen of his friends, all connected through chess as teenagers, to go on to earn at least bachelor’s degrees.
One of Smith’s chess friends, Thomas Reives, earned a master’s from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and works as an engineer at Eli Lilly. Reives was on the 1999 Attucks state championship team that Smith coached.
Chess ended up being more than a game for those students. It was a ticket.
“It was the first time we were allowed to almost escape our environment at a very young age,” Reives said, “to see there was more than playing basketball or football to get out of Indianapolis and see the world.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.