All photos by Peter Larson
There are few certainties in life, but Wu-Tang Clan being the best rap group to ever exist is one of them. The sheer breadth of influence they've had, as well as the remarkable achievements of each individual member—RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and Ol' Dirty Bastard, to name a few—has carved out for them a very special place in music history.
As any fan knows, Wu-Tang is a universe unto itself. Their seemingly idiosyncratic influences—the Five Percent Nation, kung fu, vegetarianism, etc.—have given them a distinct style (one might even say philosophy). One of those influences is the ancient game of chess. Even on their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers,they had the song "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'," the first of many to express their passion for comparing chess to life.
The oldest member in the group, and its "spiritual head," is GZA. GZA was the first Wu-Tang member to sign with a record label, doing so in 1988 under the name of "the Genius." The name isn't for naught—GZA is an intellectual powerhouse. In his free time, he chills with physicists from MIT, gives lectures on the universe at McGill, and promotes Science Genius, a partnership with (Rap) Genius to teach kids science. He's also one of the best chess players in the Clan.
GZA's love for the game is well-documented. In 2005, he released an entire album dedicated to the game, Grandmasters. Every song had a chess-themed title: "Advanced Pawns," "Illusory Protection," and "Queen's Gambit." But GZA, like a true samurai, keeps his skills hidden from the public—no video of him exists playing chess, and he prefers to only play with other members of the Clan.
My personal chess odyssey began on April 23, when I received a set as a birthday gift. I had become interested in "the game of kings" after seeing it in one of my favorite movies, the great Jamaican gangster classic Shottas. In one scene, the two main gangsters play a game of chess while drinking and smoking. "Not a talking game, it's a killing game," one of them says, right before receiving a phone call informing him that his brother "Blacka" has been murdered by the police.
The game came easily to me, and pretty soon I was beating everyone I played. Everything, from my breakup with my ex-girlfriend to my attempts to find a new one, could be simplified down to a series of chess moves.
After I was just starting to get pretty good at the game, I heard GZA was coming to Cleveland at the end of August to headline the Lakewood Music Festival. As a rap nerd and a burgeoning grandmaster, how could I pass up an opportunity to play God Zig-Zag-Zig Allah in a game? I knew it would be difficult to get a game with the rapper, but like chess, everything in life is simply a series of moves. I just had to make the right ones.
Chess is won by checkmate, when the king has physically nowhere left to go. I had to trap GZA, who was the King in this game. But there stood a firm blockade of knights and bishops—his press agent and manager—around him. I had a powerful piece of my own, though. I had a queen—Kelly Flamos, the organizer of the Lakewood Music Festival. She was in my corner from the beginning.
I played creatively. The press agent didn't answer an email, and I relayed to the manager that it was still happening. That's a chess move right there—playing the pieces against each other. Kelly, my queen, would also swoop in every once in a while, clearing the way for me to advance.
Eventually, GZA's camp agreed to the match. But they had their own terms—we would do it at the Intercontinental Hotel in Cleveland, where GZA was staying. Additionally, as a favor to Kelly, I would have to pick up GZA from the airport and drive him to the hotel. After the chess match, I'd drive him straight to the music festival. Of course, I agreed. It was on.
To prepare for my opponent, I went to the Lakewood Public Library and borrowed almost every chess book they had. I stuck to a strict regimen of daily chess drills. GZA's chess games have never been documented, so I studied his albums, Grandmasters and Liquid Swords, in hopes I might learn his strategy from his music. I also trained physically: I swam 60 laps a day so my body wouldn't give out during the match. I lifted weights so my hands wouldn't be crushed when they shook GZA's.
Wu-Tang is shrouded in spirituality and mythology, so I knew that to have a chance, I would have to get on GZA's spiritual level. I refrained from eating most meat, as GZA does. I meditated and prayed on most days. And the day before the match, I fasted, only drinking liquids, to purge my spirit and cleanse my body. That night, I sat and meditated by Lake Erie, staring out at the blackness of the water. My stomach grumbled and my heart rose. I was ready.
The sun set and rose on Lake Erie, and it was morning. My car—a 10-year-old Toyota Highlander—was too dirty to pick up GZA, so I swung by my parents' house to borrow my mom's tiny Prius. My mother, a small Taiwanese woman, stood at the door and waved me goodbye. She stayed there until I had completely disappeared from view.
I drove to the airport and stood at the bottom of the baggage-claim escalator with my homemade "GZA" sign. Eventually, GZA and his manager Kay, who I later found out was Raekwon's brother, came down and found me.
GZA is 48, but he's aged well. He still gets recognized in the airport, and he would acknowledge everyone who shouted "Wu-Tang!" His voice was rough but comfortable. He seemed always on the verge of a grin. His outfit was normal from afar—sneakers, jeans, a jacket—but up close, I noticed he was all Gucci'd out. I also noticed his backpack had a luxurious grey checkerboard design.
The rap star and his manager piled into the back of my mom's Prius, and we took off toward Cleveland. When we got to the hotel, GZA ordered a drink, I set up the board, and we both sat down. Two friends of mine came to watch. GZA's manager stood with his arms crossed.
I looked at GZA. He sat upright, hands on each knee, looking into my eyes. A smile danced on the corners of his lips. "You ready?" he said.
I nodded and made my first move: moving my king's pawn out two squares. GZA responded by moving his queen's pawn, and the skirmish had begun.
For a while, the only sounds were of the wooden pieces moving, shifting. Occasionally a pause to concentrate. "Oh, so you're trying to shoot off my pinky toe?" he would say, and then quickly make his move, countering whatever I was doing. But the game was pretty even by the time we got to the middlegame. The center was up for grabs; no one had a material advantage. I began to feel it: My training was paying off.
All of a sudden, I spied an easy checkmate. If I moved my queen to the seventh rank, I could checkmate GZA in two moves. Time slowed down. I became conscious of how fast my heart was beating. I looked at GZA. He was studying the board. Could it be? I moved my queen.
Boom. He took the queen off the board and replaced it with one of his knights. I hadn't seen the knight protecting that space. I had blundered, bad. The spectators gasped. A rookie mistake. I threw up my hands. GZA sat back. "Whole different game now, isn't it?" he said, and chuckled.
I held on for a couple minutes after that, but it was over. A player of his caliber doesn't have a material advantage like that and blow it. He didn't checkmate me—I was able to evade for him a while—and we just agreed to just play again. He had beaten me, fair and square.
The second game, things got much friendlier. GZA started to reminisce about old Wu-Tang stories.
"I could play this for hours, man, all day," he said. "I played 78 games one time with Masta Killah. We played—I think it might have taken us like 12 hours. All night. Smoking, drinking. Took a nap for about two hours, got back to it."
GZA also had stories from the East Asian mythology Wu-Tang is famous for. "Have you ever heard the story of how an Indian king was introduced to the game of chess?" He said. "The king offered the guy who showed him the game anything he wanted. And the guy only asked for grains of wheat, but he wanted one grain for each square on the board, except doubled each time. So it'd go 1, 2, 4 grains of wheat for all 64 squares. And when the mathematicians came together, they realized that that amount of wheat would stretch around the Earth three, four times.
"It just goes to show you the depth of the game," he marveled. "Because when I read it, I thought he was stupid. And then I started going over it in my mind. And by the time I got to the fourth row of the board, I was in the billions already. That's as deep as the universe, right?"
At the end of the match, we shook hands. "It was a pleasure," he said. "Next time."
After the match, I dropped off GZA and his manager at the Lakewood Music Festival. Though the interview and match went well, I was depressed—I hate losing. I was like a rookie in the NBA playoffs who had just gotten eliminated in the first round. The playoffs are cool, but I wanted to win.
I came home and saw the book 55 Steps to Being a Grandmaster still lying on my dresser. It was the only book I had taken out from the library that I hadn't finished. With the sounds of the music festival drifting in from somewhere out in the distance, I sat on my bed, opened the book up, and began to read.
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