DC teen reaching new heights as nationally ranked chess player

At 6 feet 3 inches, DeMatha Catholic High School student Zahir Muhammad towers over much of his competition. But it's not a basketball court or football field that he is competing on.

The 16-year-old is a nationally ranked chess player and was honored by the D.C. Council last month with a ceremonial resolution after being victorious in the 2018 DC Scholastic Chess Tournament.

Muhammad says he started playing chess at the age of three and he spends a lot of time to hone his skills.

"I try to practice at least two hours a day," he said. "Now, high school is a lot of pressure, a lot of extra work, but when I was in middle school, I used to practice six, seven hours a day to get ready for tournaments. But now, I would say at least three. And games, it depends, but mostly for me, my games can take up to three to four hours to finish one round."

Muhammad wants to change the stereotype for a sport that has traditionally been played by white men.

"In middle school, I was on an all-black chess team and everywhere we went, people were looking at us differently and they were looking like - what are they doing here? Why are they here?" Muhammad described. "We even had to go against people making monkey noises and things like that because we were defeating stereotypes. The way that we responded was playing well on the chess board and winning championships.

"Now that I have moved on past the team and playing individually, that is sort of my individual goal - is to continue what we started on that team and continue that individually to defeat stereotypes. Play well and show that I can be more than just an athlete or more than just be tall or something like that. I can play and use my mental abilities to help impact society."

The junior high school student has high aspirations - both in chess and his future career. He says he would like to attend an HBCU when he heads off to college.

"I want to be either an architectural or chemical engineer, and I want to continue playing chess to reach at least international master level and compete on the champion world stage," the talented teenager said.