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MEAN CHICAGO SCHOOL BREEDS TOUGH CHESS PLAYERS

"Checkmate Is Bringing Escape to Teenagers; Top Chess Teams Come From Mean Streets," Don Terry wrote for last Sunday's New York Times from Chicago.

"The signal came, and Benjamin Little, B.J. to his teammates, started psyching himself up to play." `Come on, B.J., you can do it,' the 16-year-old told himself as he prepared for battle."

B.J. plays for the Orr High School team, one of the best in Illinois even though it is from one of the city's worst public schools. According to the cold figures of tests scored, Orr, in a hard-to-thrive-in stretch on the West Side of Chicago, is near the bottom of almost everything.

But statistics do not tell the whole story about hope and grit in schools like Orr.

The chess team is the other side of the story, the story beyond the statistics. It is a tale of ordinary people - parents, grandparents, big brothers and a math teacher - conspiring to save their children with kings and queens and lots of prayer.

It begins in Room 207, the detention room at Orr where punishments are served. It is also a room where dreams are made: The chess team practices there.

Team members start filing into 207 early every morning because that is where the coach, Thomas Larson, spends his days. Larsen is a math teacher, and he is also in charge of the in-school suspension or detention room, the place where the unruly and the angry are sent to cool off.

In the back of the room, a group of chess players ignore the flying pencils and nasty words and a burly security guard is taking away two classmates. Instead, they focused on Fred Tolliver, an assistant coach and former star of the chess team, who was hustling a freshman.

"What do you want to play for?" the freshman asked.

"I'm not that good," Tolliver said. "But if I beat you, you have to graduate on time. You beat me, and I pay you $100."

In a few minutes, Tolliver had checkmated the boy.

"He'll be back," Tolliver said. "The question is, for how long? We lose so many to the street."

About 25 percent of Orr's students drop out before the end of any given year. Nearly 75 percent of the students come from low-income families. Freshmen enter Orr with sixth- and seventh-grade math skills - "if they are lucky," Larson said.

In 1986 he started using chess in his pre-algebra class to help his students think, and to get them to sit still for a few minutes. Soon he began holding chess competitions in class and started a team.

Chess was something foreign to most of the students at Orr. It was a game they thought was just "for smart white people," said a former team member, Johnie Ruffin, who went on to teach Orr's current third-ranked player, Antwoine Conaway, 17, how to play.

"When we showed people that we could play too, it surprised a lot of folks," Ruffin said. "But it made me feel good, real good. It kept me out of gangs."

The first year Orr played in the public school chess league, it came in fourth of six teams in its division; it placed 14th out of 16 teams in the citywide playoffs. Just a few weeks ago, Orr was crowned the city champion and was one of the top five schools statewide.

The other day, Orr competed in the National High School Championships at a hotel just outside Chicago. Hundreds of players from around the country were there.

As Larson watched the action, Brian Wasz, a 25-year-old player from a suburban Chicago school, Provisio West, stopped to wish Larson and his team well.

"We were their first-round victim at state," he said. "At Proviso, they are known as the toughest school in the city."

He was surprised by how good the Orr team was because of all the negative stories he had heard about the school and the neighborhood. He said he had been playing chess for six years. Most of the Orr team had been playing for only two to three years.

"When I first got into chess," said Anthony Faust, "I was trying to get out of doing my work. In a way Mr. Larson tricked us a lot. He'd let you come in and play chess, but by the end of the day your work would be done. Going to school wasn't so bad after all."

(To be concluded next week.)