We live in an age of short attention spans and instant gratification, so it's not too much of a mystery as to why a game like chess fails to capture widespread attention. Yet it's not as if the public has no interest in tabletop games — consider the rise of televised tournament poker, which began attracting large TV audiences in the early 2000s. Though it may be an uphill battle for chess to occupy a similar spot in American culture, don't tell that to Tony Davis, the nine-time Arkansas State Chess champion — the winningest champion in the history of the state, according to the Arkansas Chess Association.
The 51-year-old Little Rock native and resident told the Arkansas Times that playing board and card games as a child with his family set the stage for his lifelong interest in chess. At the age of 8, Davis received a chess set for Christmas and began to challenge siblings and schoolmates. By the time he became a teenager, he realized he had a knack for it.
"I saw how logical the game was, and I saw people making moves that weren't that smart. It was the people that I played that made me feel I could be the best in the world," he recalled. As a student at Central High, Davis found himself ostracized for his inquisitive nature and his interest in intellectual games and puzzles instead of dominoes and spades. He was called a "nerd" by his peers — a term he now wears with pride.
Some may be surprised to find that one of the top chess players in Arkansas is an African American. Davis can share many an anecdote in which his skills were called into question by other players over the years.
"There's hardcore racism in the game, especially in the big tournaments," he said. Davis said black players are often matched against each other in tournaments to prevent the likelihood of one of them taking home the top prize. He gets a bit worked up recalling times in which his moves were challenged by opponents or he was accused of cheating: "There's always a dispute anytime I have less than five minutes left on the clock. ... So I'm down to five minutes, my opponent is down to five minutes and it's that skin color thing, they don't like it. They don't like the fact that we both went down to five minutes and it can go either way." He said he's seen a lack of impartiality from tournament judges, mostly when he plays out of state. "I don't place a lot of it here in Arkansas. Here in Arkansas, it's pretty friendly. This is my home state. I know all the chess players; they know me."
Davis recalled coming to a draw with a prominent white player, Robby Adamson, at a 60-minute tournament in San Diego in 1993. When Adamson saw Davis nearly a decade later, he approached Davis and asked if the men knew one another. Davis reminded his former opponent of the stalemated game; Adamson looked at him with disbelief and denied the game had even taken place. Davis can't help but suspect racial bias shaded Adamson's memory in a selective way: There's no way someone who looks like him could have brought the match to a draw.
Despite the adversity he's faced as a black player, Davis does have models to emulate. He admires Maurice Ashley and Emery Tate (a Grandmaster and International Master, respectively), two African-American players who Davis says are so assertive their knowledge and skills aren't overlooked because of their race.
Arkansas Chess Association President Steve Paulson said one of the traits that most separates Davis from other players is his dedication to promoting the game. "He's not only dedicated to playing himself, but dedicated to helping others with [chess] and making sure we have tournaments," Paulson explained. "Most people just want to show up, play and go home. There's only a handful of people willing to do the work that goes on in tournaments, and he's one of them. ... He's active with younger players and getting them involved."
The patience and effort required to master chess may be a tough sell for many young people, but Davis has taken note of one shortcoming that could be addressed: more money. That cash prizes in state tournaments are so low baffles Davis. "Like golf, you hit a white ball in a hole and win hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions. You win a state chess championship tournament and you may win two hundred and something dollars," he said. In 2008, he and a few friends created the Urban Knights Chess Club, both to promote the game of chess in general and to create more financial incentives for players. The club hopes to put together a tournament of its own by next spring, with a $1,000 cash prize going to the winner.
Davis believes the skills he learned through chess kept him out of trouble growing up. The unfortunate irony, he said, is that too many African Americans learn the game only behind bars. He thinks that chess can help young people foster a better sense of self-esteem, which in turn will help them make better decisions in life.
The Urban Knights Chess Club meets every second and fourth Saturday from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. at Andy's Restaurant near the corner of John Barrow Road and West Markham Street.