National News

It’s Chess Championship Time!

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Jul 1, 2018 - 1:46:38 PM

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Zahir Muhammad, 15, will represent his city at the National Tournament of Champions in July. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Muhammad

WASHINGTON—It’s that time of year for sports championships not just for the NBA and NHL but also for the coveted D.C. Scholastic Cup Chess Tournament, held May 26, that brought high school minds together ready to duel it out with their kings and queens, pawns and bishops.

Three painstaking rounds saw one skilled player after the other fall victim to the talent of none other than 15-year-old Zahir Muhammad who will represent the city in July at the National Tournament of Champions in Wisconsin.

Zahir employs multiple strategies in his games.  He told The Final Call, “I normally start with a D4 attack from the sides, and then I converge into the center. I think it reflects my personality too.”

This has helped him win several championships since he started playing chess at the age of three.  Now, he is a nationally ranked player.   He’s also the captain of his chess team and two years ago in 2016 finished in the top 10 at the K-12 National Championships in Orlando, Fla. Last November, he won the Varsity Maryland Roland Park championship, as well as other numerous chess accomplishments.

His chess coach, U.S. National Master, David Bennett marvels at Zahir’s ability.  He told The Final Call, “I have been working with Zahir over the past year, so I’m just one of several coaches who have had the opportunity to work with this gifted young man. Zahir is an amazing student. He has the ability to deeply concentrate, to patiently contemplate his moves, and to carefully weigh out all his options. He also has strong intellectual curiosity and the ability to admit his mistakes and adapt. And obviously he has a very sharp mind.”

Zahir has the necessary qualities that allow a chess player to advance to the highest levels of the game, said Mr. Bennett. “Now it’s just a matter of his own commitment to the game and his will to excel, which I no doubt believe he possesses. Most importantly, Zahir has a positive attitude and he’s a great guy, so I think he will succeed at whatever he puts his mind to in life.”

Zahir has been coached by D.C. metro greats such as Ted Fagen, Vaughn Bennett, Shaka Greene, Gregory Achonolu, Quito Swann, David Bennett, Robin Ramson and many others.

He is a rising junior honors student at Dematha High School and when he’s not competing in chess tournaments or practicing, he plays AAU basketball, runs track, and is a member of the D.C. Mayor’s Youth Leadership Institute and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington. His favorite subjects include math, chemistry, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.

His goals include winning the National Tournament of Champions in July, reach a 2,000 official chess point rating by the end of the year (he’s currently at a 1,751 rating). He also wants to win a title and to attain the international master rank (2,400 rating or above).

In a year or so, he wants to receive a college scholarship to major in chemical engineering and somewhere in his future he hopes to start his own chess team.

What’s his favorite chess piece? “Most people would say their favorite piece is the king or queen, but the pawn is key and the base. They are taken for granted, but they make a big impact on the game.  My favorite chess piece is the bishop. It’s the most effective because it can attack from far away and do a great deal of damage.”

Zahir’s teammates encourage him every step of the way.  “Throughout the years of Zahir’s chess career, he has grown so much. I know for a fact because I have been by his side since the beginning.,” 18-year-old Zion Utsey told The Final Call.

“Every game he plays, he takes it as if it is his last and that is something I take away from his attitude. The game of chess changed Zahir’s whole perspective on life and he used it to his advantage. His leadership, on and off the chess board, was impeccable and he is also one of my closest friends to this day. Solely off of his drive and dedication to the game, he could become the best in the world, without a doubt.”

Fifteen-year-old Satiya Ewing-Boyd agrees, “In the time I’ve known Zahir, he has grown so much as a friend and a student. He is reliable, kind, and intelligent. He started with little experience but as his time in chess grew, he became more humble, yet significantly more skilled to the point that he was able to lead himself and others to multiple championships.” 
Zahir’s success is also the product of his dad, Rory Muhammad who taught him to play chess and his mom Jennifer Muhammad who drove him to numerous practices and tournaments. He is the oldest of four children. Who inspires Zahir?

“The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan whose consistency and strength motivates me to achieve greatness in chess and in life.”