Former chess prodigy on tour in Bay Area

Like Bobby Fischer, Josh Waitzkin was a chess prodigy as a child, defeating middle-aged men at Washington Park in New York City.

“If you don’t get rattled by the guys at Washington Park, you can handle anything,” he said.

Today, Waitzkin, 30, is a master of the martial arts and has written about the strength of body and mind in his new book “The Art of Learning,” which he will be discussing during a visit to College of San Mateo’s chess club today and the Hip-Hop Chess Federation in San Francisco on Saturday.

Waitzkin was the subject of the 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” adapted from a book written by his father, Fred. Waitzkin won his first national championship at 9 in 1986 and at 13 earned the title of national master. He later drew a match with world champion Garry Kasparov, of Russia.

Waitzkin vividly remembers his first chess match as a 6-year-old when he was growing up in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. Once he picked up a chess piece, “I felt like I was discovering a lost memory,” he said in a phone interview from his home in New York City. “[My opponent] was getting irritated because he thought I was trying to hustle him. People started gathering around us and calling me, ‘Young Fischer.’”

However, the popularity of the movie deflected Waitzkin’s interest in competitive chess, which he left at 24. He has since ascended as a world champion of Tai Chi Chuan, a Chinese style of “soft” martial arts.

“It’s a way of reconciling the internal with the external,” he said.

Adisa Banjoko, co-founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation in San Francisco, says Waitzkin is the perfect guest for an organization centered on using the concepts of chess to reach out to inner-city youth.

“We know all of these people in hip-hop who like chess,” said Banjoko, who learned the game from his father while growing up in San Bruno. “The mission is to use chess and hip-hop to enrich the lives of American youth. Where else are [youth] going to get lessons on patience and where are they going to learn about solving problems?”

Rene Ochoa, a College of San Mateo professor who coordinates the chess club, said the simplicity of the game connects strangers through friendly competition.

“I don’t consider myself a good chess player,” he said. “It’s a beautiful game and I enjoy sharing it with other people. I like the social element of it.”

bfoley@examiner.com

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