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    Rising young Memphis chess star using game to navigate life's challenges

    Zack McMillin

    Photo by Mark Weber // Buy this photo

    Douglass Elementary chess teacher Jeff Bulington (left) works with freshman Emmanuel Paxton, 14, on moves during a recent practice session. Paxton has a junior chess rating of 1,652, which places him in the top 5 percent of all players in the country in his age group.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: We’re marking the passing of one year and the approach of another with eight pure-Memphis stories – eight snapshots of the larger picture that is the Bluff City, told by some of our finest writers.

    He arrived unexpectedly, after three specialists told Shirley Paxton she would never conceive, after 10 years of a marriage that would not make it another decade.

    Emmanuel, she would name him, to honor the providence she believes brought forth her only son, a faith deepened when the boy arrived at an Atlanta hospital on the same May birthday as the great-grandmother who raised Shirley.

    She had died the previous year.

    "I guess God took her and gave us Emmanuel," is how Shirley explains it.

    Emmanuel is 14 now, living in the heart of Binghamton, one of the poorer neighborhoods in the nation's most impoverished metropolitan region, with his mother, fifth-grade sister and his mother's boyfriend, a native Memphian who brought them to the city.

    Shirley tries not to dwell on the unfortunate events that landed them in circumstances growing increasingly difficult — disability, car troubles, unemployment and two disappointing attempts (and $10,000 in student loans) to pass a for-profit college's surgical technician courses.

    She instead focuses on the possibilities she sees for her children, especially the way in which their future has become tied to an ancient game not commonly emphasized in the inner city.

    Emmanuel, as he navigates his freshman year at Frederick Douglass High School, is developing a reputation as one of the Mid-South's best scholastic chess players.

    If he continues pursuing the game with the same passion and commitment, says Memphis City Schools chess teacher Jeff Bulington, Emmanuel could soon become a factor nationally.

    Even Emmanuel realizes that one of the goals motivating him may seem too far to fetch — one day defeating James Black, like Emmanuel an African-American freshman, but to Emmanuel's great envy someone introduced to the game, in Brooklyn, early in elementary school.

    Black's rating — 2,274, developed over six years of tournament play and most recently as a star at a powerful chess-in-schools program in Brooklyn. Emmanuel's rating — 1,652, with his first posted tournament from February 2010 and just more than two years working with Bulington.

    It's an enormous gap to close, at a time when adolescent distractions can morph into teenage concerns, but as Shirley Paxton reminds her son, he's overcome great odds from the very beginning.

    Rising star

    In the game that would confirm Emmanuel as the Mid-South's junior high chess champ, the boy from Binghamton was thinking about Luigi Centurini, a 19th Century chess player and composer.

    He'd come across "Centurini's Rule" in a book picked up over the summer at the World Chess Open, in Philadelphia. It had been his first vacation in years, funded by Bulington's nascent chess foundation. Along with the memories of authentic Philly cheesesteak sandwiches and a mind-blowing visit to Gettysburg, Emmanuel encountered James Black for the first time.

    Emmanuel would play in only two fall tournaments, and with his main 9th-grade competition rated 200 points higher and playing in several out-of-town tournaments, he would go through the book, "Fundamental Chess Endings," night after night in the family's small duplex a few blocks east of Lester Community Center.

    The tactics complemented the kind of slow, thoughtful chess taught to Emmanuel in his seventh- and eighth-grade years at Lester School, where Bulington had in 2010 installed a pilot chess-in-schools curriculum.

    But the state's move to turn over Lester to an evangelical Christian charter school organization pushed Bulington's program to Frederick Douglass Elementary School, and Emmanuel and his fifth-grade sister, Shimera, were among the many promising chess players who put in for school transfers to follow him.

    The endgame book helped him win November's Mid-South Grade-Level Championships, but at the Mid-South Grand Prix a month later, Emmanuel found himself in a losing position in the final game.

    "Six months ago I would've panicked," Emmanuel would say later. "But I thought if I could just keep playing, maybe I would see something."

    When he first began learning under Bulington, Emmanuel would squirm just as much as other beginners when forced to literally sit on his hands and stare at a chess problem for five minutes, considering every possible move.

    "Find a move, then try and prove it's wrong," Bulington would say.

    The disciplined approach would reward Emmanuel — he saw how he could apply Centurini's Rule, from the endgame book. He forced a draw and backed up that November championship with a tie for first.

    A much more challenging schedule awaits this coming semester.

    His biggest tournament comes in April, in Nashville, at the K-9 nationals — a tournament dominated last year by James Black and his teammates.

    "I'd like to get my rating up to 1,900," Emmanuel said of his goals for freshman year. "To do that, I've got to play and learn from stronger players."

    Learning lessons

    After most school days, Emmanuel leaves the impressive front lobby of the new Douglass High and walks around the corner to the much-older Douglass Elementary for lessons with Bulington.

    Looming behind Emmanuel on the walks are towering smokestacks from the neighboring chemical factory. A morning explosion there earlier in the school year killed a worker and shook the school enough that the foundation was checked.

    Emmanuel actually thinks of Atlanta as home — his mother grew up there and it's where his estranged father and his family live. But since the family's car died two years ago, they have not been back. Douglass feels safe, Emmanuel says, in part because he doesn't know as many people.

    "When you know lots of people," he says, "you can get to talking and when you get to talking, you can get to scrapping."

    One afternoon in October, in Bulington's chess room, he had Emmanuel reading out loud from education writer Paul Tough's new best-seller, "How Children Succeed."

    A large section of the book is focused on James Black and his Brooklyn public school. Emmanuel would be attending an evening event featuring Tough, at a KIPP charter school in North Memphis.

    English is Emmanuel's weakest subject — he had to retake achievement tests just to get accepted into Douglass's optional program — and Bulington tries to work complicated reading into Emmanuel's routine.

    The chapter was eye-opening to Emmanuel — though it chronicles Black and two teammates' astonishing ascensions to become certified Chess Masters with ratings above 2,200, it ends with Black's disappointing showing on a high school placement exam.

    Black's chess teacher, Emmanuel read aloud, "was daunted" by all that Black "did not know."

    "He couldn't locate Africa or Asia on a map. He couldn't name a single European country. When they did reading-comprehension drills, he didn't recognize words like infant and communal and beneficial."

    As elementary students wandered in, Bulington and Emmanuel quizzed them about European countries.

    Emmanuel's sister, Shimera, a strong chess player herself, was stumped. A sharp second grader tried out, "America?" and then, "Africa?"

    "That's not a country," Emmanuel says, frustrated.

    Bulington ordered the younger boy to learn the name of one European country before entering the chess room.

    "I'm not going to have people say, 'That boy sure can play chess but he doesn't know where any countries in Europe are,' " Bulington said.

    That night, after the KIPP program, Emmanuel engaged Tough in a short conversation.

    "Were you really telling the truth that he did not know where Asia was, could not show you Africa in a map?"

    Tough said Black's teacher gave him those details, and emphasized his book's larger point, that the "character" skills developed in chess need to be transported into more traditional school subjects.

    Emmanuel persisted, saying, "but maybe chess is more interesting," and "we're passionate about it."

    "Right," Tough said, "but I think your teacher is able to help develop that passion, right? He shows you how it can be exciting and interesting. So I think that's something teachers have to get better at helping students do, in things that aren't chess, you know?"

    Emmanuel remained skeptical, thoughhe returned to his Binghamton duplex with a signed copy of the book, which is subtitled, "Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character."

    Starting a tradition?

    On the last Tuesday of school before Christmas, Emmanuel and his Douglass classmates spent most of their time reviewing for exams.

    In his ACT Prep class, the teacher presented a word problem comparing costs of driving the family gas-guzzler vs. renting a hybrid car. Emmanuel did not volunteer that his family is carless and he often must rely on rides to school from one of the chess program's supporters.

    In Spanish, his favorite class because of young Teach For America alum Yari Torres, Emmanuel sheepishly translated into Spanish the sentence: "My girlfriend is attractive and funny."

    In the gym for what is now called Lifetime Wellness, students went over a study guide for a test on sexually transmitted diseases. Ted Anderson, the athletic director, reminded Emmanuel that he's counting on him to organize a championship chess team.

    But most of his teachers are unaware they have a student who is among the best chess players in the Mid-South.

    "I can see why he would be, because of his critical thinking," said Pamela Ford, his biology teacher. "He has that intrinsic motivation."

    Bulington has identified eighth graders who by next year could join Emmanuel on a competitive high school team, but what excites him most has been the enthusiasm from the area's youngest children.

    He pushes Emmanuel to mentor them. To a second-grader named Floyd, Emmanuel showed how thinking longterm, three and four moves ahead, can prevent disastrous missteps.

    Floyd's younger brother, 4-year-old Kendrick, entertains everyone in the room playing proper chess on the computer.

    Just as Bulington now sees Emmanuel and his sister Shimera making one another better, he wonders what could happen if Floyd and Kendrick keep at it."Perpetual antagonism and competition," is how Bulington describes the benefits of a sibling chess rivalry.

    Emmanuel may never catch James Black or his teammates, but he believes if more Kendricks are exposed to this chess program, Douglass kids could one day rival those in Brooklyn.

    "I am jealous — he's learning the game and he's 4 years old? Man, it won't take him long to learn tactics and endgames," Emmanuel said. "He'll be at 2,000 in no time."