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Check Mate: Chess Program at Marshall, Faraday Has Been Crowning Success

 The chess team at Marshall High School and Faraday Elementary School is led by math teacher Joseph Ocol.
Marshall/Faraday Chess Team
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EAST GARFIELD PARK — Joseph Ocol has a favorite question for the players on his Marshall-Faraday chess team.

"Who is the king in your life?" Ocol asks them routinely.

"And I always tell them: 'The king in your life is you.'"

Ocol, a math teacher at Marshall Metropolitan High School, created the chess squad in 2006 after one of his students was fatally shot. Next-door Faraday Elementary School joined the program three years later.

Besides teaching the 50-or-so team members — six of whom will play in an elite national tournament later this month — how to beat opponents, Ocol uses chess to teach them about life.

"I just felt that one way or another that I wanted to touch the lives of these kids," said Ocol, a Philippines native and Albany Park resident. "I know many kids who have been shot dead. ... The experiences they have to face, I sympathize with them. And the kids need some help in developing their critical thinking skills.

"Chess is the least expensive tool but the most effective."

Twenty years ago, Ocol's parents founded a nonprofit school in one of the Philippines' poorest areas. When they died, he said they made him promise to keep the school running and "continue the legacy of helping the poor, especially the students who look up to the school as the only hope for a better life."

Ocol has done just that and extended that promise to the West Side of Chicago, where his chess team has had a great deal of success.

Since 2008, Marshall players have won six state medals. Last year, 14 students from Marshall and Faraday attained an official rating from the United States Chess Federation.

In April, Faraday eighth-grader Kiana Hobbs claimed first place at the prestigious U.S. SuperNationals in Nashville.

"From chess, I've learned to be patient and never underestimate your opponent," said Hobbs, 13, of East Garfield Park, who will enroll at Whitney Young Magnet High School in the fall.

Hobbs said Ocol's dedication to chess and the students has been "remarkable."

"He's really an inspiration to us," the 13-year-old said of Ocol. "He's really amazing."

Hobbs is one of six team members who will compete in the 2013 U.S. Junior Open Championship in Tarrytown, N.Y., from May 31 to June 2.

Hobbs' older brother, Marshall freshman Michael Hobbs, will join her.

"Chess has been a life-changer for me," said Michael Hobbs, 15. "It keeps you away from the streets and the gang violence, and it keeps your mind focused."

Michael Hobbs and several other Marshall students make the short walk across a parking lot to Faraday after school daily to tutor the elementary-school players.

The club's practice sessions last about two hours, with students filling up one of the Faraday classrooms.

"It's crazy how a $10 chess board can expand your thinking and how life works," said Marshall senior Datreion Leverston, 18, of North Lawndale, who has been on the team for two years.

Sophomore Bobby Blankenship, of Bridgeport, said before he discovered the chess club, he was consumed with basketball and "making millions in the NBA."

"The only thing I wanted to do was play basketball," said Blankenship, 17.

Ocol said that's an overall issue at the West Side schools.

In a letter he wrote in January to President Barack Obama, Ocol said: "I am proud of the basketball trophy cases that decorate our hallways, but I fear that the excessive glorification of pro sport creates false hope, because for every child who makes the big league, thousands are left on the sidelines, watching."

Ocol and his players also hope to destroy a possible stereotype that chess isn't a game for African-Americans.

"We walk into tournaments, and we get looked at because they're not used to seeing a predominantly black chess team that's good," Blankenship said. "They don't believe we're good until they see it."

Seven years after its founding, Ocol has been pleased with his brainchild's accomplishments.

He's been overjoyed to watch his students think of themselves as "kings instead of pawns."

"Kids love challenges," Ocol said. "If you provide them with one, they will take it."