The Head Of The Hip Hop Chess Federation On Using Chess-Thinking To Navigate An Uncertain World

Adisa Banjoko is a master of managing time. I know this because he’s got books and businesses and fascinating resume entries to his name. But also because before I was able to say “hello” when I called him one afternoon in July, he was already half-deep into an explanation of stoicism. Before we’d bothered with pleasantries, he’d expounded on his daily practice of self-examination through journaling.

“I ask myself these questions every day…,” he said, coming out of the gate hot. “The first question is: ‘what did I do well today?’ Then it’s ‘What did I do bad?’ ‘When was my self-discipline or self-control tested?’ ‘Why did this occur?’ ‘What do you think was the root cause of those discomforts is, and how can I improve?'”

Heavy stuff, but it seems to be working. Banjoko is a lecturer, author, journalist, actor, and all-around renaissance man. Perhaps most notably, he’s a chess player. When the Wu-Tang Clan’s the RZA is looking to play a game, Banjoko is on speed dial. As the founder of the longstanding Hip Hop Chess Federation — which offers recreational activities, workshops, educational scholarships, and lectures on strategy for individuals in at-risk communities — the Grandmaster has built a career pairing kids with rappers, movie producers, MMA fighters, and other role models for friendly games.

For Banjoko, chess is the ultimate equalizer. It’s a truly level playing field.

“These black and white squares do not care what color you are or if you are rich or poor,” he says. “The only thing they ask is that you come with strategy, patience, and skills.”

Banjoko’s strategies come from the teachings he’s learned from years of playing chess, studying martial arts, and his life-long love of hip-hop. Considering that he’s a man whose approach to living revolves around strategy, we reached out to him to get his take on how to make this particular moment — with daily civil unrest, an economic downturn, and a raging global pandemic — one of self-improvement, rather than existential stress and anxiety.


What’s with the journaling?

I just started studying stoicism and this is a practice that Marcus Aurelius used to do. When you first do it it feels dumb! “What did I do good today?” “What did I do bad?” Your answers will be really short, but when you really start looking into your life you will find mistakes, and you’ll start to find where you held your own ground in terms of who you see yourself as, and who you say you are.

Over time, I’ve noticed patterns — maybe when my meditation practice drops off, how does that affect my days? Journaling also makes me more present with people, I don’t take their disrespect personally and I don’t take their praise for a fact. I start to hold myself more accountable when I don’t eat right, or when I say I’m going to work out and I didn’t. Or when I said I’m going to finish a book and it’s still barely touched.

It keeps me accountable for myself.

I wanted to ask you about your passion for chess and how you connect that to life. What lessons can we learn from playing the game?

Chess is one of the oldest games in the world that everyone still plays. When a person plays chess, what are they dealing with? They’re dealing with issues of structure, they’re dealing with issues of risk, and risk assessment, they’re dealing with overcoming after loss, you come up short with your Rook or your Knight, and now you gotta figure out how to make it happen with it with fewer resources. You are dealing with issues of patience, and perseverance. Who doesn’t need that right now? Show me a person who doesn’t need it. The game of chess is one of the few games that can give you all of that every time you play it.

It helps you understand yourself. Are you too aggressive? Are you too passive? Do you understand what you think you see? This is a time when you can’t misjudge that. The move before checkmate determines if you really see a thing for what it is or not. You go “Ha, checkmate! There is my queen,” and they’re like “Nope, my Knight is right there and you just lost your Queen.” It wasn’t what you thought it was. It brings you clarity of mind and presence.

That’s why chess has skyrocketed since the quarantine. You get to play with your friends, you get to play with your neighbor and this builds not just a respect for your own intellect, you have respect for your opponents. When I first started the organization there was a San Jose rapper named Jay the Butcher who passed away not too long ago. He sent me a picture of a homeless man playing a Silicon Valley executive on the east side of San Jose in front of a hot dog store. And I said, “What happened?” The homeless guy you can see he’s got a cart with all kinds of dirty clothes and cans, he beat the Silicon Valley dude!

Why do you think the game resonates with so many hip-hop greats?

Because chess offers a life that honors those with the best thought. If you want to be someone who is honored by the merits of your thoughts and actions, you should be a chess player.

This is why RZA, this is why Will Smith, this is why Jay-Z is in Italian Vogue playing chess. People say “It’s not like everyone in hip-hop plays chess” absolutely true, because only the best play chess. Only the legends. If you want to be an average everyday ass rapper go ahead and leave the board down, let it be so another rapper can outdo you lyrically or in business. Chess has always been an integral part of the hip-hop experience, but not so people can pretend to be Bobby Fischer, and not so people can win tournaments. It’s so they can survive.

Hip hop Chess Federation is about how you take what you see on the board, and apply it to your life so you don’t get killed, so you don’t come up short, so you don’t make a deal that you shouldn’t take. So you don’t make a move at the job that you shouldn’t accept. This is why the top heads play it.

With this new quarantine lifestyle we’re living, what’s the strategy advice we should be focused on for adapting to this new world?

I don’t want to sound too alarmist and I don’t want to sound like a fear monger, but I think we are about to enter a new phase. A phase that’ll be akin to Spartan times, a phase that’ll be akin to the Wild West or Samurai era, things are very unstable, systematically. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been doing with your life, you’ve been negatively impacted with this.

Now we find ourselves indoors, we find ourselves unable to do a lot of the things that were not only fun to us, but unable to do the things that we defined ourselves by. Then we start questioning ourselves, like who am I? What am I about? This is a time where nothing except self-discipline is going to get your through. It’s easy to get lost on your phone, it’s easy to get lost on YouTube, it’s easy to get lost just in your own brain, thinking about stuff that’s not valuable.

So you see this time as an opportunity for self-improvement?

I see this as a time of self-refinement for all of us. Yes, you gotta be home right now. Yes, you don’t get to kick it with your friends the way you use to. Yes, you have to wear a mask when you just want to go to the store and get some gummy bears and some spring water. But this is also a time when you can absolutely be everything you tell your friends and family you would be if you weren’t at work, what you would be if you weren’t at school.

“Man don’t you know right now if I wasn’t in school I’d be hella fit,” but you put on 20 pounds since the quarantine.

“Man don’t you know I hate my job, I hate my manager, my boss sucks, man if it was up to me I’d just be learning coding right now, I’d be picking up over at Google, but I can’t do it because the job gotta be on lock.”

Job ain’t got you on lock, you ain’t coding nothing, you ain’t studying nothing, you ain’t reading nothing, and your diet is out of pocket.

This is the time when humanity can embrace more of what they say they are. I think your identity, no matter what your melanin content, no matter part of the planet you’re from, ultimately your identity is what you study and how you act. That’s who you really are. You can say that you’re a basketball player, but if you play more online than you practice in real life, you don’t really care about the game bruh, have a seat.

Self-actualization via quarantine?

This is the time when people can be the person that they’ve been afraid to be. The person that they’ve been saying they want to be. I’ve taken this time to meditate more, I’ve taken this time to exercise more, I’ve taken this time to read more. We need to come out of this pandemic way smarter than we went in. Stronger physically than when we went in. More disciplined than when we went in.

This thing has messed up my money, this thing has messed up my routine, my ability to see people that I love, but I’ve also had an opportunity to go inward, into myself and face my own fears and face my own shortcomings and build my strengths. I think that’s what a lot of people are missing that they can do for themselves at this time.

What would you say to the argument that it’s hard to grow when you’re struggling financially? How can you sustain that kind of self-exploration while you’re juggling your life and the stress of not being able to pay your bills?

Well, I kind of look at it like this: You may or may not be able to pay your bills but that doesn’t mean you can’t sit peacefully with yourself. You may not know where your next meal is coming from but that doesn’t mean you can’t be kind to someone else. Money or not, will you move with intent and virtue — will you be kind when you don’t have to someone who is very different from you? This is where I found myself. Like I said, my money is not exactly lit right now. But rather than get overwhelmed with “where am I actually gonna get money from?” Okay well let me just be silent within myself and you might find the discipline to go do something that will open the door for you in the future.

I’m not just reading books for me right now, I’m reading books for the future — okay COVID is up, what’s up? I can be more clear I can be more present. I suffer from that same situation of stress, but I don’t let it remove me from my own research. If you’re really worried about where your next check is coming from, then what are you studying? How many people have you called today to see if there is an opportunity for you to get something? Maybe you can work for a few hours at the food bank, get a check, and get some food on the way out. There are all kinds of things we can do and this is where discipline and refining our intention is so critical man.