At the Fischer/Karpov/Spassky level, chess is less game than war, and by tradition its top guns are male; of the current 500-plus U.S. Masters, only one is a woman. That Baraka Shabazz even took up the pursuit is unusual, for, as her mother, Raqiba, notes, “Who ever heard of a black girl playing chess?” Yet the Shabazzes have hocked their worldly goods, including two of Baraka’s chess computers, to support her career. With stunning results: At 15, their daughter is the No. 6-ranked American woman, and sometime in 1981, after just three years of play, she may well attain Master status. That feat took Bobby Fischer five years.
Born in Denver after her parents separated (says Raqiba of the dad Baraka’s never seen, “I don’t know whether he’s above ground or below it”), the young girl moved to Anchorage, where her mother worked as a government clerk and married third husband Yusef Shabazz. Baraka, described by her mom as “a straight-A student who loves math and science,” remembers playing her first board against her stepfather in December 1977: “I lost and cried. But after two weeks I was the one who was winning.”
By then Yusef, a $1,400-a-week pipeline construction worker, had been disabled on the job, so in 1979 the family, including son Yahya, 2, moved to Oakland. The reason: The Bay Area is one of the nation’s toughest proving grounds for chess players. The sacrifice is substantial. The Shabazzes are living in a $100-a-week room at a motel in Oakland’s tenderloin district because Raqiba won’t return to work. “Baraka is our job,” she says. “We have to forsake the luxury of a regular paycheck to ensure her success. We want her to be the female Bobby Fischer.” That dream is shared. Lately Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson has paid the Shabazzes’ rent bill from a community fund, and others—including a black-owned travel agency and entertainer Eartha Kitt—have donated money and services so Baraka can compete in distant tournaments.
A former San Jose State faculty member tutors her gratis so she can skip school and devote six to eight hours a day to chess. No longer psyched out by male foes who blow cigar smoke in her face, Baraka fantasizes about becoming America’s first female International Grand Master by age 18. But she also looks beyond her familiar 64 squares. Down the line, says Baraka, “I’ll have time for friends, travel, college. Maybe I’ll be a diplomat. I’ve been taught you go after what you want—I want to be a symbol of achievement for blacks. I’ll make it, you’ll see.”