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Cleveland schools chess powerhouse is a true global effort

Oma Dahal, left, and Binita Biswa, right, sit at a table looking at their chess board.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Seniors Oma Dahal, left, and Binita Biswa, right, practice moves during a meeting last month of John Marshall High School's chess team. They've been playing chess with friends like senior Nouh Shaikh, behind them, since middle school.

The chess team at Cleveland’s John Marshall High School has proven itself to be a powerhouse, with members earlier this month earning second- and third-place finishes in their divisions at the Ohio High School Middle School Championship.

The students also had impressive results at the U.S. Chess Federation’s National High School Championship in Washington, D.C.

The team’s core members – four seniors and one junior – have been playing together since attending middle school together at Joseph M. Gallagher School in Cleveland, all immigrants who were born in other countries who came to Cleveland.  

Cameron Cutler, John Marshall's chess team coach, who is a science teacher at the school, said current team members came to Cleveland from Nepal, Oman, the Philippines, India, Vietnam and India, joining several students born in the U.S.

Seniors Oma Dahal and Binita Biswa sat across the chess board from each other during a practice in April, not long after the students' strong showing at the national competition, where Dahal came in 32nd out of 450 people in her division.

"It's like a mental game; you don't use physical strength," Dahal said of why she likes the game. "So it's just like, what's fascinating is, a little kid can beat you, you know? And my last game, the both games I lost, it was middle schoolers who beat me. So that was crazy."

Developing a close bond

Dahal and Biswa said they've developed a close bond over the years of playing chess together. Both Dahal and Biswa more than hold their own in a male-dominated sport - as the two sole women on the team - but they also share another close connection: they're both Bhutanese refugees from Nepal, arriving in the U.S. through a U.N. resettlement program after living in refugee camps in Eastern Nepal after their families were expelled from the Kingdom of Bhutan.

"We always like to talk about our refugee background and stuff because we feel like it's important," Dahal said.

Biswa agreed.

"It kind of gives people a spectrum as to how far we have come as people," she said.

Biswa came to the U.S. when she was five and Dahal when she was nine. In the time since, they both had to learn English, and they taught themselves many of the maneuvers they use in chess by watching others. Dahal said nobody in their families knows how to play.

Senior Nouh Shaikh said being on the same chess team has helped them grow as people.

"Most of the players, the seniors, we grew up together," he said. "We all went through middle school and high school all together and, you know, in the same setting. And we all just played together. It was a real team bonding."

Sara Kidner, John Marshall's principal, noted that Dahal and Biswa were initially on the waiting list at her school as freshmen, but they came with their former coach and "pleaded to get in to keep the team together."

"They brought copies of the articles written about the chess team, and I relented even though we had no space," she said. "It was a great decision."

Cameron Cutler sits facing a chess board.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
John Marshall High School's Cameron Cutler, a science teacher, is the team's chess coach.

Good reason to brag

Coach Cutler is proud of the 10-player team, and he’s got good reason to brag, with one team finishing 10th in its division and another team finishing in 16th place in its division at the national championship in April, in addition to the impressive results at the state championship earlier this month. (Akron's Jennings Community Learning Center team also performed well at that event.)

The team regularly wins tournaments in the school district, and often places highly in the Greater Cleveland Scholastic Chess League (the regional league that has roughly 50 schools), with a first-place and second-place finish from students at that recent competition.

Cutler attributes part of the success to the students’ close bonds.

"We just kind of call ourselves a family over there," he said. "I feel like this is a really, really close, close knit group and everyone wants everyone to succeed," he said. "And I think that helps kind of push them to to be better."

Sophomore Derek Tran, from Vietnam, wasn't a part of the original group that got its start in middle school, but Tran said he’s been welcomed into the team. He’s enjoyed learning about the other students’ cultures on the team, Tran said, even if he doesn't speak Hindi like some of the other members.

Facing the challenges

Oma Dahal added she’s glad the team is proving that students in a high-poverty, diverse, urban district can match up with the best of them, noting it seems like opponents from private schools often have more resources and training.

Senior Oma Dahal, left, chats with Nouh Shaikh, middle, and sophomore Derek Tran over chess pieces.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Senior Oma Dahal, left, chats with Nouh Shaikh, middle, and sophomore Derek Tran.

"I feel like a lot of them look down on us because we're public schools and because, you know, we're in the inner city," she said. "But I'm just glad that, like, we're able to make a name for ourselves."

However, funding is always a challenge, Cutler said, especially as the team has become more successful. The trip to nationals was roughly $20,000.

"I feel like funding is always going to be a challenge, especially with a sport like chess that is probably underfunded to begin with," Cutler said. "But what I will say is, like, my administration and the district has done an amazing job. I think they see the potential in these kids."

The Cleveland Guardians - themselves fans of playing chess - have raised money for John Marshall's team, and some of the players have even sat across the chess board from the students. Senior Akshar Patel beat outfielder Steven Kwan, even after Kwan requested a "do-over."

Kidner said the school also sold t-shirts to help pay for the trip to the national championship, reaching alumni in seven different states.

 Juniors Zamaurion Atkins, left, and Sabine Dungannon, will be striving to keep up the chess team's excellent play in the absence of some of the team's star seniors, who are graduating.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Juniors Zamaurion Atkins, left, and Sabine Dhungana, will be striving to keep up the chess team's excellent play in the absence of some of the team's star seniors, who are graduating.

John Marshall’s chess team will lose some of its star players at the end of the school year with the four seniors graduating: Dahal, Biswa, Shaikh and Patel.

Dahal, as valedictorian, will be giving a speech alongside Biswa, John Marshall’s salutatorian, at graduation early next month. Cutler says they've all got bright futures ahead of them, each being college-bound. Patel and Shaikh will room together at the University of Akron.

Next year will be a rebuilding year, Cutler said, not unlike many professional sports teams, who lose their MVPs. But he’s got some great prospects with his current sophomores and juniors, waiting in the wings.

Conor Morris covers education in Northeast Ohio.