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John Marshall High School chess team building champions, sense of community

The group is made up of mostly immigrant and refugee students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. They recently placed in the top 20 during nationals.

CLEVELAND — The John Marshall High School chess team is special in more ways than one.

With seven countries represented among these teammates, the bond goes far beyond the chess board. Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon told 3News the team's success has been several years in the making.

"These kids have been playing together since middle school," he said, "and many of these kids are international students who have immigrated to Cleveland and found chess as a way of building community."

Junior Oma Dahal says her transition to life in America was a difficult one, at first. 

"When I first came to America, I really didn't like it. I didn't know I was even coming to America until we landed," she recalled. "At first, it was really hard, because I wasn't able to speak to my peers."

Nouh Shaikh says he found a sense of community when he first joined his middle school chess team.

"I started chess when I was in first grade back in my country, but then when I came to America, I started playing chess in seventh grade, and then that's how it went off," he explained. "We had a chess team where there were some Nepali kids, mostly South Asian kids, and then everyone from the team used to, like, try to convince me to get into chess."

"In chess, anything is possible," teammate Binita Biswa pointed out. "There's no age barrier or gender barrier."

"We have Indians, Nepalese, Spanish [students, students from] you know, [The] Philippines, all those people," Shaikh added. "It's a very close relationship between all of us."

And this close relationship resulted in great team success when the group started winning local championships. As John Marshall's chess coach Cameron Cutler explains, their invitation into the national competition broke a lot of new ground.

"Most of my chess players, this, maybe, was their first time traveling for chess," Cutler said. "[It was great] just to see how excited the kids were just to be there."

The trip was exciting for the team members in many ways.

"Memphis, it was like a whole different country, so beautiful," Dahal said. "The view—amazing!"

"It was very stressful playing those games," Biswa remembered. "Bbecause they're national level, they're more challenging."

But out of nearly 100 teams, they persevered, winning 12th and 13th in their division groups.

"All the hard work paid off," Biswa told 3News, with a smile. "When we won 13th place in the country, I was just there, like, so proud of them."

"These are great examples of the kinds of learning that are going on in classrooms all over this district that people sometimes don't see when they think about an urban school district," Gordon added. 

"As a team, we have, I guess, set a footprint as a CMSD team and as many immigrants and refugees," Biswa gushed. "This is a big milestone."

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