Michael Vick started out calm and smooth and in control. He should move down a football field as well as he did the chessboard Tuesday against his first opponent, a sixth grader named True Knowledge Islam.
True Knowledge had the name, but Vick had the game.
The Eagles quarterback tapped his foot, fingered his captured pieces, and was the picture of poise as he steadily, mercilessly dispatched his first foe, age 11.
Michael Vick learned chess, and learned to love chess, while he was in a federal prison for his role in a dog-fighting operation - "When I was away," as he called it. He taught himself, first as a way just to kill the boredom. But then he discovered it helped him think, taught him to make better decisions, and brought out his competitive juices. "I liked going head to head, mano a mano," he said. He still plays three or four games a week at home in Virginia.
So when the Eagles Youth Partnership scheduled its annual chess tournament for hundreds of city children on Tuesday at Lincoln Financial Field, Vick asked whether he could play.
The organizers picked two of their stars, hoping to give Vick all he could handle, but they were finishing games when Vick arrived. So he warmed up with True Knowledge.
Then things got serious.
Jowel Ammons, 18, a senior at Philadelphia Military Academy at Leeds, a public school in North Philadelphia, has played chess since middle school. It has taught him patience, how to analyze and strategize, and given him great confidence.
That confidence was tested when he sat across the chessboard from Vick.
Television cameras and microphones were inches from their faces. The crush of the crowd smothered them.
Vick was cool, calm. No big deal. That's life as he knows it.
But as soon as Jowel moved his first pawn, the noise and cameras faded away. He was home, in front of a chessboard, where he is in control, and the intimidation factor started to turn.
Vick moved aggressively, overconfident, leaving himself vulnerable.
Jowel knew he owned the quarterback on the sixth move.
"When he didn't want to trade his queen, I said, 'He's intimidated by me now,' " Jowel said. "That's when I gave him my moves."
Vick has the Superman emblem tattooed on his right hand, but it didn't help. At one point, showing mercy, Jowel said, "I don't think you want to make that move, Mr. Vick."
Jowel piled up pieces.
"Apparently, you're in a mess right now," Jowel told him.
Vick talked tough, full of bravado.
"You get a ticket for every win," Vick said.
This brought a giant smile to Jowel's face.
"One ticket for every win?"
And he turned to the crowd. "Who wants to go to an Eagles game?" Jowel asked.
In seven minutes, just 17 moves for Jowel, it was over. Checkmate.
Jowel went off to face stardom and television cameras. Tomyra Wilson, a sixth grader at Rudolph Blankenburg School in West Philadelphia, took his place. She was first in her division in the Pennsylvania State Scholastic Chess Championships, beating more than 100 other fifth and sixth graders.
Vick started this game more conservatively. Their pieces were traded evenly, but steadily Tomyra began to control the middle of the board.
"She's good," Vick told the crowd. "She's good."
More than 3,000 city children play chess in programs run by the After School Activities Partnerships, funded in part by the Eagles Youth Partnership.
Through the program, many children have earned significant college scholarships, gained confidence and skill, and avoided the streets after school. There were 4,000 children in the program until last year, when the Philadelphia School District had to cut funding for some of the after-school organizers, and some locations had to be closed.
Against Tomyra, Vick seemed to be losing control of the game. A reporter shouted, "Wearing you down?"
"No, no," Vick insisted.
He moved his own piece into check, but didn't see it. Tomyra politely but immediately moved it back. She knew right away. Soon the game was over. His king was toppled. Vick had fallen to a sixth-grade girl.
"They set me up right here, man!" he protested, in jest.
Vick actually wanted to play another 10 games. He was loving it. He wanted a rematch with both Jowel and Tomyra, and he wanted to face all comers. This was no act. He wanted revenge. He wanted to win. But his handlers had other ideas.
Jowel was impressed with Vick's play. He was skilled, patient, and thoughtful. But you could tell these young people were serious chess players thinking, as Jowel said, at least five moves ahead.
Vick loves the game, but Tuesday he was the amateur, and Jowel and Tomyra showed just how good the after-school instruction can be.
In a postgame interview, Vick said he learned that chess is a game of patience, of avoiding mistakes, of making carefully measured decisions. He grew to love it, and played it more and more.
"I found it might have been a calling for me to play," he said. "Sometimes things happen in an ironic fashion."
Yes, his gifts are athletic, but Vick can't be an athlete all the time. And he loves the freedom of chess.
"I would much rather play a game of chess in a relaxed environment," he said. "And I don't have a coach over my shoulder, and I can control my own destiny, which is kind of cool.
"I don't think it helped me as a football player. It's helped me make good decisions - that's what it's done for me."
Michael Vick says he loves the one-on-one competition of chess. philly.com/vickchessEndText