Cullen Clemons is the king of checkmate

By Ed Brock

It was a stormy school day in Alexandria, La., and a young Cullen Clemons was one of the few students to come to his 5th-grade class.

"So my teacher, Mr. Garland Jones, said ?I'm going teach you how to play chess."

That was the day Clemons set his foot on a path that would take him to New York City where he would swap pawns with the masters of the game. He would learn from his Russian teacher how to win one chess tournament after another, and then he would come to Clayton County.

His talent had begun to slip away with lack of use, but he remembered something he learned on that rainy day in Louisiana that would bring him back to the top this past weekend when he won the 2004 Georgia State Chess Championship, Section A.

"It was euphoric, really," Clemons said.

Now 53 and a resident of Jonesboro for the past 12 years, Clemons is a substitute teacher who also shares his knowledge of chess with middle school and high school students. He remembers well how he developed his love for the game that was so much different from another game of his childhood, checkers.

"I was fascinated first by the way the pieces moved, the difference in the way each piece moved," Clemons said.

Then gradually Clemons developed a winning system, and that's what made him the best player.

In 1976, after two years serving in the U.S. Army, Clemons moved to New York to go to college. He also began frequenting the famous games in Washington Square Park.

"They are the grand masters from all over the world," Clemons said of his opponents at that time. "The best players in the U.S. can be found there."

Some of them had even seen games played by legendary chess master Bobby Fischer, stripped of his world-champion title in 1975 after refusing to defend it against Russian grand-master Anatoly Karpov.

"They said to watch him play was truly unbelievable," Clemons said. "He's the one who ignited the chess flame in the United States. It's regrettable that he chose not to defend his title."

While in New York Clemons met a Russian teacher who would teach him the skills of that country that breeds most of the world's chess champions.

"He said you can run into a Russian on a ship and he could probably beat the average American," Clemons said. "?We study the game in elementary school and by the time we graduate we're masters,' he said."

Clemons studied with the Russian for a year and a half, learning to apply the concept of having a system that he had learned as a youth to the higher level of tournament play.

"Everyone has a certain style. And they have to remain loyal to it to be successful," Clemons said. "I played quiet a few tournaments and I earned quiet a few trophies."

After moving to Clayton County Clemons dropped out of tournament play for some time until a friend invited him to play in a tournament in Forest Park.

"Low and behold I won the tournament," Clemons said.

When Clemons first came to Georgia the level of play was much lower, but a gradual influx of masters and the ability of local players to test their skills against other players around the world via the Internet have changed things.

"In Georgia there really are some very good players," Clemons said.

In the beginning of his return to tournament chess Clemons was frustrated by some failures. He played at the tournament at Emory University in Atlanta and did not do well.

"I realized it was because I was rusty," Clemons said.

Then he redeveloped his system and his old skill returned. Now he is a feared opponent at the regular chess games played on Monday nights at the Barnes & Nobles bookstore on Mt. Zion Road in Morrow.

"My wife and I took some lessons from him," said Daniel "Dee" Voltaire of Jonesboro who met Clemons at the club. "He was such an excellent player and an excellent teacher. I talked to him one on one and we started taking lessons from him."

Voltaire, who along with his wife Janet owns two Dee-jay's Barbershops, said his game has definitely improved under Clemons' tutelage and he plans to start a regular chess club when he opens his new barbershop at 8556 Tara Boulevard.

Welch Fair of Stockbridge is another member of the Barnes & Noble group who has taken on the master.

"I haven't beaten him yet," said Fair, who has been playing for about a year. "He strengthens my game as well."

Ted Summers of Decatur is one of Clemons' oldest competitors. They met eight years ago at Woodruff Park in Atlanta.

"I think he is definitely in the expert quality league," Summers said. "I've played tournament chess for a number of years and he's one of the best I've ever played."

Clemons said he would probably revisit the Emory tournament, scheduled for next month. He also plans to continue teaching the game to the next generation of players.

"Kids have a knack for playing. They really have a love for the game," Clemons said, adding that the game has ancillary benefits, too. "It really helps them in school. You can tell the difference."