It is impossible to miss that James Black Jr. is a chess champion when you walk into his home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Three trophies, each nearly three feet tall, sit on the floor in front of a fish tank. Other trophies crowd the floor in front of a living room cabinet that is covered with more trophies, many with medals dangling from them. There is an inlaid chess board on the coffee table in the center of the room with carved wooden pieces, and another board on the kitchen table.
James, 12, is a seventh grader at Intermediate School 318 in South Williamsburg, a perennial powerhouse in chess. Though the school’s teams have many talented players, James stands out.
He is the second-best player in the school, based on the ranking system used by the United States Chess Federation, the game’s governing body. And he is on the cusp of becoming a national master, the second-highest title awarded by the federation and one that fewer than 2 percent of its active members have earned.
In April, James led his team to the championship of the kindergarten through eighth grade section of the Junior High School Chess Nationals in Columbus, Ohio. James tied for first in his section.
James learned to play chess five years ago from his father, James Black Sr., but within a couple of weeks, James was winning most of their games.
“Throughout my life, whatever my dad showed me, I was interested,” James Jr. said last week. “I tried to beat him at other things, but he’s always destroying me.”
Some of the school’s players come from families where chess is seen as a way to avoid trouble, and James is a particularly stark example. He has two older half-brothers by his mother. One spent 33 months in prison for selling drugs, though he is now on parole at age 25. The other, Terrance Daniels, 19, was convicted of murder in 2009 and is serving 20 years to life at the maximum-security prison in Elmira, N.Y.
James also has a half-sister, Tanique Daniels, 18, who was thrown out of the house this spring by James’s father after a series of arguments.
Photos of James and his siblings line the walls of his house on Stuyvesant Avenue, ghostly reminders of an earlier family life.
James, who can be quiet around strangers, said that he missed his siblings. “I kind of get lonely at night,” he said.
He said that he was “a little disappointed” in Terrance and that he did not understand how he could have murdered someone. “That just doesn’t seem like him,” he said, and added, “He has to do his time and I guess hopefully he’ll come out soon.”
James’s coach at I.S. 318, Elizabeth Vicary, said that the difference in James’s life has been the commitment of his father.
“I see his dad more than I see any other parent,” Ms. Vicary said. “I feel like his dad is kind of saving him. James is not going to become a street punk. He is going to get a great education because his dad is going to see that happens.”
James Black Sr., a deli clerk at a D’Agostino’s supermarket, acknowledged that he kept a close eye on his son and that young James sometimes chafed against his rules — limits on video-game time chief among them — and wondered why his older siblings seemed to have more freedom. “He asks plenty of times, ‘Why can they do things that I can’t?’ ” Mr. Black said.
James has also been studying with a grandmaster, Alexander Stripunsky. The money for the weekly lessons, which run $200, has come from a private benefactor and the nonprofit Chess-in-the-Schools program. The lessons are paid through August, but there is uncertainty about how the cost will be covered after that.
As summer rolls in and the thoughts of the average 12-year-old turn to vacation, James is focused on achieving his master ranking. For two months now, he has been just a few of points short of the 2,200-point threshold. He could reach it in his next tournament by winning three or four games.
As for the long term, James is still too young to know what he wants to do when he grows up — asked if he had any ideas, he grinned and suggested perhaps he could be an ice cream taster, a job he read about in school.
But he said that chess may provide a backup plan. “I feel that if I don’t find a job that interests me that I’ll be teaching chess for a living,” he said. “It’s pretty decent money.”