Ernest Levert Jr. finds a home for the Cooperative Chess Cultural Center

November 28, 2021 was one of the best days yet for Ernest Levert Jr. Olde Towne East’s bi-weekly Chess Rallies at Upper Cup Coffee on Parsons Avenue. After meeting regularly from 3-6 p.m. on the second and fourth Sundays of every month for about six months, more than 30 people came to the event on the last Sunday in November. A chessboard topped each table in the shop.

With so many people crammed into a small space during an ongoing pandemic, Levert’s anxiety surfaced, so he stepped out into the cold to greet people in an effort to keep people from congregating inside the store. Sitting at a table on the sidewalk, Levert looked across the street and noticed a sign outside an old tattoo shop. The space was available. A place like this, right across from the Upper Cup, could not only be an overflow room for chess events; it could be a community gathering space and the future home of a chess training center.

“We started working on it, and two weeks later we signed on for it,” Levert recently said during an interview inside the new space, which the building owner recently refreshed with new cladding. flooring, new lighting and other renovations while Levert’s team applied a new coat. painting and installing furniture. “If I were to write a book, this chapter would be called ‘Swimming in Miracles’. There’s been so much alignment, so many people showing up in my life when I need them. … I can’t help but think that the universe is conspiring to help us.

The new space is the next step in a journey that Levert began in 2014 when he launched the Royal Oak Initiativea chess mentorship program that achieved 501(c)(3) status in 2017. As Levert said Living at the end of last yeara popular Upper Cup chess tournament in December 2019 has led to more encounters in 2020, with bi-weekly gatherings starting in earnest in June 2021.

“I didn’t initially want to do all the programming that we do now, but when I had people saying, ‘I want to play chess, I can’t find anyone to play with. Or, ‘I can’t find anywhere to play that I feel comfortable with.’ I’m like, OK, there’s an opportunity here to serve,” Levert said.

From the start, mastering chess was never Levert’s end goal. Chess is just a vehicle for bigger life lessons. “I love the wisdom I can get from chess and I’m looking for people who love playing chess and getting to know each other. … It’s always been a way to connect with people, break down barriers and build bridges,” Levert said. “Our goal is to use the game of chess to help build community and for us to become better people.”

Representation is also crucial. “You have to see yourself,” Levert said, noting that in central Ohio, the affluent, predominantly white suburbs of the northwest have traditionally been known for chess, with money opening the door to chess lessons. private and other opportunities. “For us, it is an obstacle. That’s one of the reasons you didn’t have a black international grandmaster until 1999. You need to be able to travel to different countries. …Black people of African descent are underrepresented in the chess space.

To combat this lack of representation, Levert said he wants to have programming that is culturally appropriate for black people and black culture — programming that this new space can accommodate. Tentatively named the Cooperative Cultural Chess Center – aka 4C, or “the fork” – the two adjoining rooms in the rehabilitated space are currently outfitted with folding tables, chairs, locally made chess boards and artwork on the walls, including a painting provided by the community. Coach” Keith Neal. But this is only phase 1.

The Cooperative Chess Cultural Center on Parsons Avenue, in its early days, features folding tables, chairs, chess boards and artwork from "Coach" Keith Neal by local painter Robert Miller.

After a small tournament from 6-9pm on Saturday February 26, Phase 2 of 4C will kick off on Sunday February 27, with Upper Cup Chess expanding into space, followed by other events through mid-March. , when Levert hopes to open with regular hours. Throughout the deliberately slow and gentle opening process, Levert wants to hear people walking through the space. What do they like? What don’t they like? What are they planning there?

“The first word is ‘cooperative’. I am interested in solidarity economy. What is it like for people to make decisions about their own lives rather than leaving those decisions in the hands of a privileged few? said Levert. “When you enter this space, you enter here as an equal and you can make decisions. What I tell people is that if there’s anything here that you don’t like, it’s your fault.

Recently, while hosting an event at 4C, a young man asked him why there was no extra trash can. “I’m like, if you think we need another trash can, go get another trash can.” And he literally did,” said Levert, who recently noticed someone else cleaning the windows without being asked. “It’s our space, and you’re responsible for the space just as much as I am. Sometimes being a leader means cleaning up after others. It means sharing the weight, carrying the burden. What if those principles translate, I think that the world would be a better place. … It’s a microcosm of what the world could look like. Man, if the world looked like this? It’s drugs.

Ultimately, Levert hopes the center can function as a true cooperative — a community-owned asset that could also serve as a place to sell failure-inspired creations from local artists and artisans. And while Levert’s ears are open to community feedback on what would make a great chess training facility in Columbus, he has plenty of ideas.

For one thing, he hopes to keep the space open from 8 a.m. to midnight. In the morning, from 8 a.m. to noon, 4C would function as a chess-centric coworking space, and possibly as an overflow location for Upper Cup. Some people were playing chess. Others might read a book. From noon to 3 p.m., the center could host “Lunch and Learn” tournaments, followed by after-school programming from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. focus on a different population,” he said. “Mondays might focus on men, Tuesdays on teens, Wednesdays on women, Thursdays on philosophers, Fridays on families, Saturdays on community and Sundays on seniors.”

Levert hopes to launch Phase 3, the grand opening, on June 1, ideally offering wooden tables with chessboard inlays and more lighting, plants and local art. Some chessboards can be connected to the Internet, allowing live games, and perhaps even life-size chess with virtual reality headsets. All of this will require resources, of course, which Levert is working on through sponsorships, grants, and most importantly, community support.

Initially, Levert may ask for a suggested donation of $5 for occasional users who want to take advantage of the space, and eventually he hopes to offer different membership levels of $20, $50, and $100 per month, which would also cover costs. of tournament.

Everything is subject to change, however. Levert has never done this before. “I don’t know if it’s going to work,” he said. “Will we be able to keep room for all the different sub-communities: the competitive gamer, the casual gamer, the café gamer? … Can we create a space that serves all of these communities?

Ideally, the Cooperative Chess Cultural Center will become the go-to place for all chess explorers, especially those who haven’t had access to chess spaces before. “When you walk in here,” Levert said, “you feel seen. You feel heard. You feel welcome.

Ernest Levert Jr.

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