Ernest Levert Jr. finds a home for the Cooperative Chess Cultural Center
The Royal Oak Initiative founder is opening an Olde Towne East chess center across the street from Upper Cup on Parsons Avenue
Nov. 28, 2021, was one of the best days yet for Ernest Levert Jr.'s biweekly Olde Towne East chess gatherings at Upper Cup Coffee on Parsons Avenue. After consistently meeting from 3 to 6 p.m. on the second and fourth Sundays each month for about half a year, more than 30 people came to the event on the final Sunday in November. A chess board topped every table in the shop.
With that many people packed into a small space during an ongoing pandemic, Levert’s anxiety kicked in, so he stepped out into the cold to greet folks in an effort to keep people from congregating inside the shop. Sitting at a table on the sidewalk, Levert looked across the street and noticed a sign on the exterior of a former tattoo shop. The space was available. A location like that, right across from Upper Cup, could not only be an overflow room for chess events; it could be a community gathering space and the future home of a chess training center.
“We started working on it, and two weeks later we signed for it,” Levert said recently during an interview inside the new space, which the building’s owner recently refreshed with new flooring, new lighting and other renovations while Levert’s team applied a fresh coat of paint and set up furniture. “If I had to write a book, this chapter would be called ‘Swimming in Miracles.’ There's been so much alignment, so many people showing up in my life right when I need them. … I can't help but think that the universe is conspiring to help us.”
The new space is the next phase in a journey Levert started back in 2014 when he launched the Royal Oak Initiative, a chess mentorship program that gained its 501(c)(3) status in 2017. As Levert told Alive late last year, a popular chess tournament at Upper Cup in December of 2019 led to more meetups in 2020, with biweekly gatherings starting in earnest in June of 2021.
“I didn't originally want to do all the programming that we're doing now, but when I got folks who are like, ‘I want to play chess, I just can't find anyone to play with.’ Or, ‘I can't find anywhere to play where I feel comfortable.’ I'm like, OK, there's an opportunity here to serve,” Levert said.
From the get-go, chess mastery has never been the end goal for Levert. Chess is merely a vehicle for larger life lessons. “I love the wisdom that I can gather from chess, and I look for people who enjoy playing chess and learning about themselves. … It's always been a way of connecting with people, knocking down barriers and building bridges,” Levert said. “Our goal is to use the game of chess to help build community and for us to become better people.”
Representation is crucial, too. “You gotta see yourself,” Levert said, noting that in Central Ohio, the wealthy, majority-white, northwestern suburbs have traditionally been best known for chess, with money opening the door to private chess lessons and other opportunities. “For us, that's a barrier. That's one of the reasons why you didn't have a Black international grandmaster until 1999. You have to be able to travel to different countries. ... Black people of African descent are underrepresented in the chess space.”
To combat that lack of representation, Levert said he wants to have programming that is culturally responsive to Black people and Black culture — programming this new space can accommodate. Tentatively named the Cooperative Chess Cultural Center — aka 4C, or “the fork” — the rehabbed space’s two adjoining rooms are currently outfitted with folding tables, chairs, locally made chess boards and art on the walls, including a painting provided by community fixture “Coach” Keith Neal. But this is only Phase 1.
After a small tournament from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 26, Phase 2 of 4C will kick off on Sunday, Feb. 27, with Upper Cup Chess expanding into the space, followed by more events through mid-March, when Levert hopes to open with regular hours. Throughout the purposefully slow, soft opening process, Levert wants to hear from people coming through the space. What do they like? What do they dislike? What do they envision there?
“The first word is ‘cooperative.’ I'm interested in solidarity economics. What does it look like for people to make decisions about their own lives rather than leaving those decisions in the hands of only a few privileged people?” Levert said. “When you come into this space, you come in here as equal and you get to make some decisions. What I tell folks is, if there's something in here you don't like, that's your fault.”
Recently, while hosting an event at 4C, a young man asked him why there wasn’t an additional trash can. “I'm like, If you think we need another trash can, go get another trash can.’ And he literally did,” said Levert, who recently noticed someone else cleaning the windows without being asked. “This is our space, and you are responsible for the space just as much as I am. Sometimes being a leader means cleaning up after other people. It means sharing the weight, carrying the burden. And if those principles translated, I think the world would be a better place. … It is a microcosm of what the world could look like. Man, if the world looked like this? This is dope.”
Down the line, Levert hopes the center can operate like a true cooperative — a community-owned asset that could also serve as a place to sell chess-inspired creations from local artists and craftspeople. And while Levert’s ears are open to feedback from the community on what would make a great chess training center in Columbus, he has plenty of ideas of his own.
For one, he hopes to keep the space open from 8 a.m. to midnight. In the morning, from 8 a.m. to noon, 4C would function like a chess-centric coworking space, and maybe as an overflow location for Upper Cup. Some people would play chess. Others might read a book. From noon to 3 p.m., the center could host “Lunch and Learn” tournaments, followed by after-school programming from 3 to 6 p.m. At night, Levert envisions wellness programming that “focuses on character building for all community members, and each day will focus on a different population,” he said. “Mondays could focus on men, Tuesdays on teenagers, Wednesdays on women, Thursdays on philosophers, Fridays on families, Saturdays on community and Sundays on seniors.”
Levert hopes to launch Phase 3, the grand opening, on June 1, ideally offering wooden tables with chess board inlays and more lighting, plants and local art. Some chess boards might be linked to the internet, allowing for livestream games, and maybe even life-size chess with virtual reality headsets. All of that will require resources, of course, which Levert is working on through sponsorships, grants and, most importantly, community support.
Initially, Levert may ask for a suggested donation of $5 for drop-in users who want to take advantage of the space, and eventually he hopes to offer different membership levels of $20, $50 and $100 per month, which would also cover tournament fees.
It’s all subject to change, though. Levert has never done this before. “I don't know if this is going to work,” he said. “Will we be able to hold space for all the different sub-communities: the competitive player, the casual player, the coffeehouse player? ... Can we create a space that serves all of those communities?”
Ideally, the Cooperative Chess Cultural Center will become the go-to place for all chess explorers, especially those who haven’t previously had access to chess spaces. “When you walk in here,” Levert said, “you feel seen. You feel heard. You feel welcome.”