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Martin Rochin, 17, from Unity High School in Oakland, CA thinks about his next move during a practice round of chess at the Hip-Hop Chess Federation Tournament at The Galleria at the San Francisco Design Center in San Francisco, CA on Saturday, October 13, 2007. The Hip-Hop Chess Federation was founded to interest teens in chess and help them to develop intellectual pursuits. (Photo by Karna Kurata/The Oakland Tribune)
SAN FRANCISCO — To Oakland's Unity High School students Justin Ryles and Amada Rosas, the connection between chess — the game they play regularly as members of the school chess team — and hip-hop was not apparent until hip-hop star RZA of the Wu Tang Clan described the connection Saturday.

Afterward, the 17-year-olds — who were participating in the Hip-Hop Chess Federation's 1st Annual Chess Kings Tournament — felt proud of their chess prowess and their interest in hip-hop.

"At school, many people think it is a geeky game," Rosas said of a stereotype of chess players he feels in the halls of his high school. Meanwhile, he also feels that people make stereotypes about teenagers in Oakland schools.

Playing in the tournament before hundreds of people Saturday may change that, he said.

"It's a really nice way to show that just because we are from Oakland, we're not the stereotype people think about kids in Oakland — that we'd be in gangs and stuff — it shows them we're interested in chess," Rosas said.

Unity High School was one of a half-dozen high school teams from Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose that competed in a scholarship chess tournament as one part of a day of Hip-Hop Chess Federation activities. At the same time, famous rappers competed in chess against chess champions and martial arts stars.

Along with comments from RZA, the youth heard former U.S. National Chess Champion Josh Waitzkin tell them that chess can provide lessons for life.

In chess "you learn how to sort out thematic actions," and understand yourself through those actions you choose to play on the chess board.

"Once you get into it, a chess game is about how you express yourself, how you express your passions," Waitzkin said.

Hip-hop star Rakaa of Dilated Peoples, who said he doesn't play chess well and so wouldn't compete at the tournament, understands that the strategies people use in chess "give you an opportunity to trust your instincts." The same could be said of writing lyrics for hip-hop, said Rakaa, who is known mostly as a lyricist, and how they help people express life on the streets, and as martial arts where an art form is used to figure out survival techniques.

Fremont resident Adisa Banjoko formed the Hip-Hop Chess Federation early this year with help from his friend Leo Libiran.

Banjoko said he wanted youth to learn life strategies from chess strategies and that he particularly wanted African-American youth to understand that it is "cool" to engage in an intellectual pursuit like chess.

Barbara Grady at 510-208-6427 or bgrady@bayareanewsgroup.