Bravo Zulu Chess founder and CEO Shaka Greene, flanked by two of his top players, Zahir Muhammad (right) and Zion Utsey (left). Both players won first place in the advanced section of the 10th Annual Bum Rush the Boards Hip Hop Chess Tournament held Nov. 14 at the Columbia Heights Recreation Center.

If the Bravo Zulu Chess Club needed a positive sign about their readiness for a national chess tournament next month, they got it at the 10th annual Bum Rush the Boards Hip-Hop Chess Tournament. The young warriors at Bravo Zulu won first-, second- and third-place team prizes in the beginner, intermediate, and advanced sections of the tournament on Nov. 14 held at the Columbia Heights Recreation Center, 1480 Girard Street NW.

“They worked hard for this,” said Shaka Greene, founder and executive director of Bravo Zulu Chess, a district-based nonprofit that trains students to compete in chess tournaments and teaches them how the principles of chess relate to life. “This is a very good indication of where we are as a team,” he said.

Greene is raising funds to take his players to the 2015 National K-12 Scholastic Championship in Orlando, Florida, Dec. 4-6. “We know we need to grow to not just be able to go down there and compete but to win,” Greene said. “But this was a step in the right direction.”

The Bum Rush the Boards Hip-Hop Chess Tournament is a signature event of Words Beats & Life, a district-based nonprofit that uses Hip Hop culture to promote positive change. “This type of flavor in the chess world is rare,” Greene said. “The vast majority of tournaments that we go to, the students that get off the van with us are the only ones who look like us.

The event represents a refreshing alternative to the more traditional chess tournaments that require silence and focuses exclusively on chess. “Aaaaaaay-yoo!” DJ 2-Tone Jones called out at the beginning of the event, eliciting a hearty, “Aiight!” from the crowd.

“Even though the kids are dedicated in chess, they’re still kids and they want to have fun,” said David Curry-Johnson, a senior official with Words Beats & Life, explaining why tournament organizers use lessons in DJ-ing, graffiti art, and breakdancing to keep young participants engaged between rounds.

But, the event has appeal beyond the district.

Lemuel “Life” LaRoche, executive director of Chess & Community, a Georgia-based nonprofit that uses chess as a learning tool for “at-risk” youth in Athens-Clarke County, brought about a dozen members from his organization’s team – the Classic City Knights – to compete in Bum Rush the Boards for the past several years. Many of the players have prior involvement in the juvenile justice system.

“We use chess as a way to get more of our young people engaged in the game, because the game has a lot to do with strategy and forward-thinking and not being impulsive,” LaRoche said. “And all these jails that are being built are being built because our kids are so impulsive.”

Whereas some may regard chess as a game for “nerds” or “intellectuals,” Laroche said the Hip Hop themes within Bum Rush the Boards makes chess more relatable, similar to the way The Wu-Tang clan used chess iconography in its music in the late 90s and 2000s. “Hip Hop is the language of the youth,” he said, which was verified by 14-year-old Troy of Athens, Georgia.

“If you like rap and you like chess, it makes you even more comfortable,” he said.