Playing chess with GZA

10/14/2014 – The hip-hop artist GZA, who belongs to the Wu-Tang Clan, one of the greatest rap groups ever, breaks many of the prejudices often associated with the genre. He is passionate about science, and is a sponsor of the school program Science Genius, and loves to play chess. VICE published an article in which the artist was challenged to a game with Zach Schwarz.

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I played chess with GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan

By Zach Schwarz

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.

GZA from the Wu-Tang clan

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.

Video clip of Wu-Tang Clan's hip-hop classic "Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'" For
many it might seem like a cheap gimmick to cash in on the image of chess, but
GZA is a bonafide aficionado and loves the game

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.

An account of GZA's visit to MIT and Harvard

"Now that hip hop has become the single most dominant cultural touchstone in the lives of
most youth, Chris Edmin, Rap Genius and I have come together to sponsor Science Genius.
We chose hip hop as an art form to educate the listeners about scientific topics." - GZA

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.

Steve Huey of Allmusic has called him "one of the best lyricists of the
1990s," In 2012, The Source placed him on their list of the Top 50
Lyricists of All Time, and analysis of GZA lyrics found that he has the
second largest vocabulary in hip hop music.

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.

Author Zach Schwartz (right) meets up with GZA for a game of chess

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.

To read the full article, please visit VICE, who have kindly given permission to reproduce this

About the Author

Zach Schwartz is a writer from Cleveland, Ohio. He contributes to VICE, Thought Catalog, and other places. You can follow him on Twitter @zach_two_times.



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