The pawns, rooks and bishops clicked as the teenagers set up their games and, seconds later, the sound of pieces sliding across the board could be heard, followed soon, by shouts of “check,”  “checkmate,” and then again the clicks of boards being reset.

Neither nerds nor chess masters, the players in the library at John O’Connell High School on a recent Friday were mostly boys,  mostly wearing hoodies and completely into playing chess with a focus that would make their teachers jealous.

Weaving in and out between games was chess mentor Adisa Banjoko, with, “Don’t be a pawn be a king”  blazing across his t-shirt.  The 39-year-old founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation, an organization that promotes nonviolence, unity and life skills through music, chess and martial arts, has been working at O’Connell high school for four months.

“He teaches me how to make a checkmate faster,” said 15-year-old Leo Espinoza, who added that working with Banjoko is simply about playing chess.  But it’s clear there’s more to it than that for Banjoko.

Moving the right pieces on the board and making the right choice in life go hand in hand, Banjoko said.

As he demonstrated chess moves to a group of players, it was clear his advice could be applied on and off the board. “Make sure the king is cool in situations of danger. Your partners have to be there to back you up. What are you willing to risk?”

Banjoko, who has been running the Hip-Hop Chess Federation for the last two years, said Espinoza will soon be moving  the pieces around the board without missing a beat. But he hopes the new player will use his chess smarts on the streets, too.

“The idea is not to create chess masters or rap moguls. It is to get the students to think and be comfortable with their own intelligence,” he said. “When playing chess you learn to think before you move, take responsibility for your actions, and recover from loss.”

The San Francisco Unified School District pays Banjoko, a self-described chess evangelist, to teach the students twice a week how to play the board game. Using music from Public Enemy and EPMD, he  gets students to think about  strategy.

Apathy’s song “Check Mate” has become a student favorite.

I set my moves up strategically, enemy kings are taken easily
Knights move four spaces, in place of bishops east of me
Communicate with pawns on a telepathic frequency
Smash knights with mics in militant mental fights

“While there are so many obvious problem with the content of rap music that is in the mainstream today, there is also so much positive music that is out there as well,” Banjoko said, pointing to Wu-Tang Clan’s use of chess metaphors in songs like “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” which calls on listeners to think strategically and develop mental toughness.

Banjoko discovered the power of the game in the late ’80s when he began hearing chess metaphors used in rap music to describe the political dynamic of the black community.

“I began memorizing and writing down the lyrics,” he said.

This cultivated his passion for writing, and led him into a career in journalism that he continues to this day. Exploring matters of hip-hop and politics, he’s interviewed artists like Nas, Will.I Am and Run DMC.

Banjoko’s knowledge and connections to the hip-hop community aren’t lost on his students.

“He is definitely an attraction,” said school librarian Elaine Maskowitz. “Students come to play chess with him and just want to be around him.”

For students, topics ranging from the death of Tupac to the war in Iraq are all fair game when Banjoko is around.

“I think it’s good for them to be able to engage a black man in conversation on serious topics, ” said Banjoko.

The 30 to 40 students who play chess at John O’Connell are as diverse as the student body—their GPAs range from 1.0 to 3.5, and they include Spanish speakers and the hearing impaired. For some, the game has become a way to connect with one another and stay out of trouble.

“I like it because when I’m playing I’m not thinking about my problems on the streets,” said Spanish-speaking ninth grader Sylvan Sanchez. “If I wasn’t playing I would probably be out with my friends doing bad things.”

Although Banjoko is hopeful for the future of the youth, he admits he isn’t idealistic—a trait that allows him to stay grounded with the players.

“Kids relate to me because I don’t come in trying to change them. I come in trying to know them,” he said. “In these excruciatingly hard times with poverty and violence being so high, chess is not only a good thing, it may possibly be more necessary than ever.”

As he sat down with a group of new players, the lesson began:

“This is chess. It is a game of kings, and leaders play them.”

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