Donald Hooker Jr., left, played Ronaldo Gabino, 11, in a game of chess at the North Community YMCA. The Hooker father-son pair are known around the city for fostering chess competition.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Donald Hooker Jr. has played a key role in building South High School’s success at chess.


Confidence? Check. Champion? Check

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT
  • Star Tribune
  • April 16, 2012 - 10:12 PM

Last month, looking forward to Minneapolis hosting the national high school chess championships, Donald Hooker Jr. told a reporter, "I think we're going to bring some gold back this year."

Just as competition opened this past weekend, he told a skeptical teacher/adviser that he felt he could win his division.

But the Minneapolis South High School senior backed his confidence with performance, bringing home a championship in the tournament's second-toughest individual division, the only player among 280 competitors in that division to win every game.

"DJ's accomplishment is pretty significant," said Joe Henry, the no-longer-skeptical teacher/adviser.

"It felt great, especially since I was 7-and-0," Hooker, a North Side resident, said on Monday.

But DJ's father, Donald Hooker Sr., under whom DJ started learning chess as a pre-schooler, said his son actually faced tougher competition at the state high school championship, where he competed in the open division and tied for third. At nationals, he competed in the division for players ranked under 1,600 points. Besides Hooker, four other Minnesota players placed in the top six in that division.

Together, the father-son pair are known around the city for fostering chess competition at libraries and the North Community YMCA. Every Saturday from noon to 2 p.m., for example, they run a chess club at North Regional Library. The elder Hooker coaches teams at several city schools. "Everybody knows DJ," said Yvonne Moore, a volunteer at the library and also a North Side resident.

"He works incredibly hard. He spends an incredible amount of time outside practice," Henry said. That involves scrutinizing the matches played by chess grandmasters, poring through texts on chess and studying tactics for situations.

Hooker also played a key role in building South's success. At the start of the school year, the chess team captain took the huge divisional trophy South won three years ago and paraded it around the cafeteria for all three lunches. That drew more than 30 people, about 20 of whom stuck it out all year.

That's typical of the encouragement he brings to teammates, Henry said. One South team finished second in the division for unranked teams. The team on which Hooker played, sapped of members away for college visits or band obligations, finished 15th among 50 teams in the tougher K-12 division. The unranked team consisted of Josiah Biernat, Max Eusterbrock, Michael Diaz and Mohamed Mohamed.

The state's top competitor was Matthew Dahl, a St. Thomas Academy senior, who finished in a nine-way tie for ninth place in the toughest individual division.

Hooker was a blur Monday. After his school day at South, where he showed off the latest team trophy, he worked at the Central library downtown as a teen technology volunteer, helping others to use devices such as iPads. After that, he and his dad were headed to the movies.

It was a chess movie, of course, a documentary called "Brooklyn Castle," about the team from Intermediate School 318 from Brooklyn, in New York City, screening in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Film Festival now underway. That team also won the championship's top division.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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