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Southwest Center Mall Chess Group Has Game

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By Shawn Williams

There are only two places that I’ve ever seen more than two games of chess taking place simultaneously: on the streets of New York and in the Food Court of Southwest Center Mall.  Everyday anywhere from 14 to 30 players gather at the resurgent mall for friendly competition and a test of their skills.

On the day that I visited there were 7 games taking place.  Some had players were still learning the game while others brought four decades worth of experience.  Most of the games were quite, but a few players’ board demeanor was more reminiscent of dominoes.

“You took my girl,” one player exclaimed as his black queen was removed from the board.  “You should have kissed her first,” his opponent retorted.  Fourteen African-American men played chess while another five or six sat watching. It’s non-traditional gathering in a non-traditional setting.

Ron Dillard leads the loose knit group that has infomally met at the mall for the last 3 years.  He opened a kiosk near the food court last March which sells chess boards, books and other board games.  Like many of the players Dillard is retired.  He provides chess boards for anyone who comes to the mall and wants to play.

Dillard’s main goal is to expose more youth in the area to chess.  He dreams of a day when area kids will seek scholarships in chess in the same way they do with sports.  “There’s more than baseball, football and basketball.” said Dillard.  His efforts to work through local recreations centers and churches have had little success.

But during the day the focus is on the men.  Michael and Tyrone were just starting a game when I arrived in the food court.  Michael had persuaded his friend to join him after weeks of inviting him out.  Both men have been playing chess since they were young but never against this type of competition.  “These people here are good,” Michael explains.

Leonard "Boss Hogg" Watts contemplates next move at Southwest Center Mall

Leonard “Boss Hogg” Watts has been playing at the mall almost every day for the last year.  “It’s kind of addictive,” he said.  Watts has been playing chess for the last forty years and sharpened his skills in the Army.  “We love the game,” said Watts, “it gives you a big challenge.”

Dennis Sims owns his own business which allows him to sneak off most days to get in a few games of chess.  Like Dillard, he’d like to see more young African-American males pick up the game.  “Around here they don’t care about aggravating the thought process of a child’s mind,” said Sims. He’s been playing chess since 1998 and picking up games at the mall for about 8 months or so.

Dillard says players arrive around 10 a.m. and some stay until the mall closes at 9 p.m.  On a recent Friday night as I walked out of the mall around nine, I saw two players still going at it.

Each Thursday, Dillard leads a free chess clinic in the Southwest Center Mall Food Court from 6 to 7 o’clock p.m.  It’s open to the public and he provides all the tools.  “I want to make sure that our kids get exposure to the game,” Dillard said.

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