Laffeyette Smith’s tattooed hands reached across a chess board as he moved his king while his opponent, Jamar Holmes, groaned as he realized he had made a mistake.
A slight grin crept onto Smith’s face as Holmes cried, “I’ve got to take a walk,” and stepped away from the chess table with his arms folded over his head. Holmes had thought he was on the verge of his first victory against Smith, but his mistake had led to a stalemate.
Within seconds, Holmes was back with his arm extended for a handshake, and the two started playing again.
“I had him early and nearly lost,” Smith said. “I need to slow down.”
It’s a piece of advice Smith had for the chess game. And for life.
The two men belong to Make A Chess Move, a non-profit club based in Northeast Denver that teaches young people how to play chess and how to apply the strategy in the game to decision-making in life.
“That’s our motto — make your next move your best move,” Phillip Douglas, Make A Chess Move’s founder and executive director, said.
On July 22, Make A Chess Move was dealt a hard life lesson because Douglas himself did not make the best decision.
That day the organization held its annual luncheon with a lofty goal of raising $5,000 to kick off activities for the 2018-2019 school year. It was the first big fundraiser after gaining federal tax-exempt status in April.
Douglas had placed the donation envelopes with money in his car after cleaning up the site of the luncheon. Then he went to spend the night with his children. When he woke the next morning, the car had been broken into and the donations — along with two chessboards — were missing.
“I was happy they took the chessboards, but damn…the money,” Douglas said.
He filed a report with the Aurora Police Department. No one who gave Make A Chess Move their credit card information has reported identify theft, said Ken Forrest, a police spokesman. Police are investigating but have no suspects.
Because Douglas hadn’t opened the envelopes, he has no idea how much money had been donated.
Sonya Ulibarri, a board member, said they had to try to recoup the losses.
“What lesson would we be teaching the kids if we didn’t try to get it back,” she said.
Douglas said he was angry at himself for leaving the money in the car. But the board of directors told him they would do their best to raise more money and make up for the loss.
“We can’t let what put us down keep us down,” Douglas said, “We’ve got to bounce back. Everything is a lesson.”
Douglas has spent the better part of his life bouncing back from mistakes.
Born and raised in the Five Points neighborhood, Douglas grew up in a Crips gang family. He learned to play chess from an older brother, and when his older brother was sent to jail, Douglas began practicing with the goal of one day beating his big brother when he was released.
But Douglas also got caught up in the criminal lifestyle.
In 2007, he and some family members were indicted in a federal drug trafficking case. Douglas refused to cooperate and was sent to federal prison. When he got home in 2010, he decided to do more with his life. He started working for various programs dedicated to changing young people’s lives.
Then in 2012, another life-changing event happened.
Douglas’s mentee, De’Quan Walker Smith, also a Crips gang member, was gunned down in the streets. De’Quan Smith was brilliant and a history buff with an incredible recall for dates and events.
“He was also out in the streets and not making the best moves out there,” Douglas said.
In honor of his friend, Douglas founded Make A Chess Move to draw parallels between the game and life and to try to draw young people toward a new way of thinking.
Today, four of De’Quan Smith’s cousins, including Lafeyette Smith, are in the club.
Lafeyette Smith, who has his late cousin’s nickname tattooed on his hands along with his birth and death dates, said an older cousin introduced him to the club when he was a freshman at Manual High School. But he didn’t get too involved and by the next year he was serving time in a juvenile detention facility.
When Smith got out of detention, he tried chess again. But he got more serious after getting shot twice while attending a concert.
“My cousin said, ‘You’re running out of options. You better join,’” Smith said. “I ended up liking it.”
In the coming weeks, Smith will begin his sophomore year at Miles College in Birmingham, Ala. He’s the first member of the Smith family to go to college, and he credits chess for helping get him there.
“It helped me break down the mental process of how I make my steps,” Smith said. “If I move pieces on one end of the board, it could affect something on the other side that’s right in front of me.”
On Wednesday night, Smith was one of 12 people — ages 11 to 24 — playing in an open tournament for the chance to win $50 in a community room at the Mental Health Center of Denver. Outside, soul music played on a loud speaker, a woman fussed to another about something going on in her life and the scent of garlic wafted from a cooking class next door. Inside, the room was quiet except for the clicks of pieces being moved across the boards.
Elijah Beauford, 19, won his first game and was waiting for the second round. Money is the reason he started playing.
He noticed Douglas playing other students in the Manual High School cafeteria with a $100 bill lying on the table. Anyone who could beat Douglas would get the money.
Beauford said he still hasn’t beaten Douglas but he’s getting better. And now he works as a facilitator for Make A Chess Move, spreading the love of the game and the life lessons.
“It’s a metaphor,” Beauford said. “In society, you have to be one step ahead of everybody else or you’re going to get left behind. Once you master it and you know how to control yourself, the game gets easier. Like in life.”
How to help: Make A Chess Move started a GoFundMe campaign to make up for the theft and reach its goal of raising $5,000 before the start of the 2018-2019 school year.