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People Talk: Michael McDuffie

Chess coach Michael McDuffie calls himself an ambassador for chess, helping hundreds of youngsters learn the strategic board game through Archangel 8 Chess Academy. For almost 15 years, McDuffie has spearheaded enrichment youth chess programs in communities including Amherst, Buffalo, Lockport and Niagara Falls.

McDuffie, who is 59, grew up on Pershing Avenue and learned the game from his father, an employee at General Motors Co. A U.S. Chess Federation certified coach since 2000, McDuffie’s first pupil was his son. McDuffie started his enrichment programs at the old North Jefferson branch library. He continues today at the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library where he brings his bag of 20 boards and pieces.

At last year’s Juneteenth Festival, McDuffie staged the first Father’s Day Chess Festival at Martin Luther King Park. Each year in late winter, he runs a chess tournament in the Main Place Mall. This year it attracted 45 players.

Now, McDuffie has his eyes on Canalside, where he hopes to start a summer chess program.

People Talk: Is it a challenge to teach a kindergartner how to play chess?

Michael McDuffie: Children that young don’t have a big attention span, so you don’t pump them full of information. We call the individual chess pieces family members because when you use their proper titles, the kids don’t remember. After bishop and knight they get lost. We always start with the ladies first: the queen is mom, two bishops are twin sisters, the king is the father, and knights are two ugly brothers. They have two houses, or castles, because they saved their money. The pawns are the children.

PT: You must have a way with children.

MM: They know I’m tough but they know I care.

PT: What makes a good chess player?

MM: They love the game. They’re dedicated to it, and no matter what happens they will always come back and play – just like the kindergartner who went to the state championship. Even though he lost his first game he was still on the floor at Saratoga playing. With this game you could do everything right and still lose. One mistake could make your game fall like a house of cards.

PT: Has chess caused you to see the world differently?

MM: I’ve been told I do things in a chess manner, that I assess the available choices.

PT: Buffalo doesn’t strike me as a chess town.

MM: Not yet. We need chess in schools. In second and third grades, it should be part of the math curriculum.

PT: It would be nice to see more women around the chess board.

MM: I started the Urban Queens Chess Club in 2010 to teach females of all ages. We meet every Wednesday from 5 to 7:45 p.m. in the Community Room of Merriweather Library. Every April at the All-Girls National Chess Championship in Chicago there’s a $68,000 chess scholarship for females awarded. It’s not an all-male game. We had a second-grade girl go to the nationals last year. She’s the first female from Niagara or Erie County to win a national trophy.

PT: Who is your chess hero?

MM: I usually try to focus on Maurice Ashley because he’s the only black grandmaster in the country. He plays kids blindfolded.

PT: How do you challenge yourself?

MM: I’m always practicing, and I have a study chess group – me and two other guys. We play at Wendy’s. We play at Spot Coffee, Coffee Culture, Barnes & Noble. I’m always trying to play a higher rated player. You can do it online, but I prefer face-to-face. Buffalo has a good pool of talented chess players. There’s three international masters in the area.

PT: Is chess a tough sell?

MM: Yes, because most people think of it as just a game. Why does New York City have a culture of chess? Why are there chess clubs open 24 hours in New York? ‘Brooklyn Castle’ describes just about everything I am trying to do. It’s a documentary that talks about Intermediate School 318. Even when the kids leave school they can go play chess in a park somewhere. They have a chess festival in Central Park. Here at Central Library downtown, I try and have chess out on the patio during lunchtime.

PT: What language do chess people speak?

MM: Algebraic chess notations.

PT: What’s the longest game you’ve played?

MM: Probably 90 moves or four hours.

PT: Besides chess, what motivates you?

MM: Relationships with people. Getting kids to be engaged. Soccer used to be what chess has become to me. I took a bunch of girls from Riverside and made them the International Battling Babes. We used to go to Toronto, Needham, Mass. We flew to Dallas for the Dallas Cup.