Before the chess club could begin its weekly session, Nani Manion had a few brief instructions for the dozen kids gathered in the overstuffed room.Cell phones were to be kept outside; jackets belonged on the back of chairs and inside voices, please.
Manion, the head of the Lucien E. Blackwell Library’s Children’s Department, returned to her desk, but then she remembered something else.
“The chess club still doesn’t have a name,” Manion said to the group. “Bring your name ideas next week.”
The students sat across from each other at a stretch of long folding tables and pondered before resuming their matches.
“Kings and Queens,” suggested one player. “The Jumbo Chess Club,” said another. And in a display of simplicity: “Chess Club.”
Brian Diggins, who operates the chess club, said he wasn’t concerned with the club’s need for a name. Instead, Diggins said he is focused on making the club a place where kids want to be. The West Philadelphia native is known to the club’s members as “Mr. Brian,” and he sees himself as a role model.
He took over operation of the club two years ago and runs a three hour youth program on the second floor of the library located at 52nd and Sansom Streets in Walnut Hill.
“My goal is to make it as big as I can make it and as fun as I can make it,” Diggins said. “And make people know there is something good in the city that people don’t know…As long as I get people to know, people will keep coming that they know it’s a good thing.”
The club is free and open to players of all skill sets. Barbara Snell has brought her granddaughter, Zamiyah, to the club since January despite the fact that Snell does not know how to play. Snell said Zamiyah now has a chess board at home and has slowly began to teach Snell the rules.
“It’s a fun social activity, it’s something for them to do,” Snell said. “She loves playing and it helps with her math.”
Two years ago at the library, Diggins read a flyer that asked for volunteers. He didn’t know how to volunteer, but knew that he enjoyed working with kids. Helping the chess club, seemed like a perfect fit, as Diggins said he always enjoyed the game.
As a child, Diggins was taught the rules by his father and grandfather. The club gives him an avenue to teach.
“I just found something that I like to do,” Diggins said. “I like to play chess; I like to help children out. I just found my niche, something I like.”
Alwelt Kwele began bringing his son to the chess club and he said it’s a better alternative to video games. Kwele said there’s a lack of outside activities during the winter months and the chess club presented a good option.
“I just discovered this program maybe six weeks ago and I decided to start bringing him here because there are not a lot of libraries in West Philly that have programs,” Kwele said. “This is the only library I can bring him to and he’ll have this opportunity to play with kids and challenge his mind.”
Along with Manion, Diggins is assisted by children’s librarian Wilhelmina Alimi. She started the program by herself, before Diggins inquired about helping out. Instead of strategy, Alimi focuses her time on fostering the relationships between the children.
In January, she helped Diggins host a tournament at the branch with three youth chess groups.
“I said ‘give them a shot, it may open their eyes,’” Alimi said. “And the kids did good.”
Alimi said regardless of the results, the purpose of the tournament was for the kids to get together and see other kids in the same area, playing the same game.
“You never know how well kids are doing, until you let them compete,” Alimi said. “Some of them didn’t win anything, but that’s not the point. The point is for them to compete.”
Ramir Jackson, who competed in the tournament, said he is hoping the club can compete in another one. Jackson said he learned the game by playing with his dad.
“Chess is life,” Jackson said. “Cause it’s like there’s a real queen with a real queen and a real king with a real king, and the guards protecting the kings from getting checked.”
Now the group is located adjacent to the library’s Children’s Department in a small room which overlooks 52nd Street. If the group outgrows these confines, there is a larger room on the first floor.
But, Diggins has his sights set on more. He wants the club to grow into an outreach for the city’s youth, not just those in Walnut Hill. He hopes the chess club’s continued exposure can give others the idea of helping out in their community.
“If I had to start in the library on the second and third floor up here in a backroom, I got to start somewhere,” Diggins said. “If I can get downtown in a big room, fine I’ll do that too. If I can have them come east and west, north and south. I’ll still come in and do the same thing, it doesn’t have to do with chess, it can be anything.”