‘Tis the season to hear of wise men following a star, and it got me to thinking about how to raise children to be wise and to reach for the stars. A recent weekend visit with a young chess player from Brooklyn and his Nigerian-born mother brought home the reality that in life, as in chess, you need both a strategic plan and someone to have your back.
After interviewing 16-year-old Oghenakpobo Efekoro (known as Pobo), the young star of the chess documentary "Brooklyn Castle," for this blog, I realized how much families here in Norfolk, Virginia would gain by meeting him and his mother, Christina Inuware. (I’m the founder of a little volunteer group that provides free chess learn & play sessions in our community called The Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence.) His story as a first-generation American with Nigerian parents, losing his father at age four and going down a dark road that only a board game and parental support could remove him from, is powerful.
The hitch was that we had to pay the plane fares, room and board for Pobo and his mom. We don’t have grants. We have chess sets, kids and free bagels from Yorgos Bageldashery. Airlines have yet to adopt the bagel currency system, so we had a problem.
Armed with video clips of our local children at community centers, libraries and schools trying to better themselves through chess, I sent emails out and asked for sponsors to give this holiday gift to our city.
And we received – big time. The Sheraton Waterside Hotel pledged full accommodations, two Board of Education members generated every kind of educational backup we could imagine, including a whole school for a learn and play event after the film screening and Q&A with Pobo at the theater. And Will Smith, a devoted chess player, paid the air fare for both Pobo and his mother Christiana from the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation after I sent videos of our city’s children playing chess and made the case for how much more powerful the learning experience would be if Pobo were here to keep it real.
The Norfolk city manager funded movie tickets to all our Lambert's Point chess kids, while local businesses and residents chipped in to buy tickets for kids and their parents/guardians, teachers and mentors to see the film.
On Dec. 8, Pobo arrived at the Naro Cinema, where nearly all 500 seats were filled, and then went to Campostella Elementary School, a Title 1 school in a struggling section of the city, where he taught chess for hours. He gave them a role model of a sort they had never known – a young man, well over six feet one inch and built like a linebacker for the Giants, who speaks softly, laughs easily and can devastate a man of 40 in blitz chess on the clock that had them gasping and cheering like they were in the stands of the NFL on playoff day.
Seeing him and his mother together, the respectful give-and-take and how she, too, smiled easily and advised well showed where his strength came from.
We’re trying to renovate the old trolley train station in a very under-served section of town called Villa Heights to make a free chess and STEM center for kids, and the neighbors there decided to throw a farewell for Pobo and his mother. The head of the Civic League there presented Christina with a bouquet of flowers, saying, “We wanted to honor you for the way you have raised your son, because we all know how hard that is for a single parent and how much you had to do with his success.”
As I drove them to the airport for the flight home, Pobo said, “I’ve been to a lot of cities for this movie, but this was the first place where we saw an entire community just come together from all walks of life. This is what’s amazing and important. It’s about everyone coming together and when someone like Will and Jada Smith can reach out like that and just make it real for people... it’s something I’ll never forget in my lifetime.”