In the back of the Reflection Eternal Barbershop in Baltimore’s Barclay neighborhood, owner Sundiata Osagie sits locked in an intense chess battle — with a 12-year-old boy.
A skilled chess player, Osagie easily beats most of the customers who challenge him at his shop. But this is no ordinary challenger. This 12-year-old boy is Cahree Myrick, who has just been crowned the first individual national youth chess champion in the history of Baltimore.
“This is the chess champion of the country right here,” Osagie brags to customers, as the two players trade pawns.
Though Cahree has learned to play in a formal chess league, his mother, Yuana Spears, brings her oldest son here to the barbershop — amid the buzz cuts, jazz music and history books — to test his skills.
Cahree went a remarkable 7-0 in Nashville two weeks ago to win his division at the United States Chess Federation SuperNationals, and Osagie and others have been bragging about his achievements ever since.
The Baltimore Kids Chess League, in which he plays, touted his victory as perfection. Mayor Catherine Pugh honored Cahree and his teammates at City Hall Wednesday. And the Baltimore Orioles invited him to Camden Yards Friday.
“The City of Baltimore wants you to know we are really proud of your accomplishments,” Pugh told Cahree before hanging a medal around his neck.
To be sure, Cahree’s victory did not come in the event’s highest division, but the commissioner of the Baltimore Kids Chess League says it’s a standout achievement nonetheless.
“This is a big deal,” commissioner Steve Alpern said. “To win it with a perfect score is pretty incredible.
“People don’t think Baltimore City is producing these kind of achievements, but we are.”
The Baltimore Kids Chess League is open only to the city’s public school students. Launched in 2003, the program has produced three national championship teams. But Cahree is the first player to win an individual title.
To do so, he had to outscore 249 players from 28 states in his division. Eighty-nine players from Maryland competed in more than 20 divisions. Cahree was the only player to finish in the top five in his division.
“I don’t brag about it as much as my relatives will,” Cahree says. “I only talk about it if someone asks about it.”
Alpern said the city’s chess league is gaining attention thanks in part to victories such as Cahree’s. He said he often gets calls from parents of students at private schools or county schools asking to join. He tells them they have to enroll in the city’s school system.
“I tell them, ‘Sorry, you can transfer to the public schools’ — and some of them do,” he says.
Lesa Horne coaches the chess team at Roland Park Elementary and Middle School, where Cahree plays. For the students on her squad, she said, she sees immediate benefits.
“They have to learn a lot of focus,” she said. “It teaches them to plan ahead and learn from their mistakes.”
“I’d rather them learn from mistakes on the chess board than on the streets.”
Going into the tournament, Cahree said, he didn’t believe he would leave with the championship. Having finished 24th last year, he knew how tough the competition was.
But then he started to win. And win. And win.
“Everyone has a chance to win against whoever they play,” Cahree says. “I knew if I stick to my plan and tried my best that I would be fine.”
His mother, spears, traveled to Tennessee with the team over Mother’s Day weekend. She waited nervously outside the competition room for the results after each round. When Cahree emerged, she couldn’t tell from his face whether or not he had won.
“They call him the poker face player,” she said. “You don’t know whether he’s winning or losing when he’s playing. Cahree’s facial expression never changes.”
Cahree’s final game was against an opponent from Texas. Cahree was dressed casually in Nike shorts and an Under Armour shirt. Opponents from other states often dressed formally with dress shirts and bow ties.
Cahree drew the black pieces, and played one of his favorite openings: The Scandinavian defense, a counter move that often results in his queen taking center control of the board.