‘Mister Omar’ changes young lives with chess

‘Mister Omar’ changes young lives with chess

Mister Omar’s Chess Academy counts celebrity children among its clientele. Founder Omar Durrani will speak about his teaching journey at the Lincoln Theatre on Friday for “Level Up: TEDxKingLincolnBronzeville.”

Omar Durrani learned how to speak English by playing chess in his elementary school cafeteria.

Though born in the United States, Durrani spent the first seven years of his childhood with his grandmother in India. When he moved to Florida to live with an uncle, he initially communicated by writing English on a notepad.

One day at recess, he noticed two boys playing chess, and he pulled up a chair.

“I started reading their lips,” Durrani said. “Every day I would watch them and take notes.”

That led to a passion for chess that lasted through the rest of his school years, which he spent in Columbus with his mother. Today, despite living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he still runs Mister Omar’s Chess Academy, which he founded in Yellow Springs around 2010 and which has served about 1,000 pupils.

Durrani will speak about his teaching journey at the Lincoln Theatre on Friday for “Level Up: TEDxKing LincolnBronzeville,” which features 12 speakers of color on topics including generational trauma, food justice and black studies in schools. TEDx is an independent version of TED, a nonprofit organization that champions the spread of ideas through brief “talks.”

“You have to teach kids how to think,” said Durrani, now a 36-year-old financial analyst. “And chess is one of those games (that) forces you to think of your own strategy every single time. ... Once they know how to think, then we’ve empowered them for life.”

While attending college at Wright State University in Dayton, Durrani started a chess class for a public school in Yellow Springs that became so popular it caught the attention of the Antioch School, a private pre-K through sixth grade institution that hired him as its resident chess teacher. Two of Antioch’s participants were comedian Dave Chappelle’s children, Sulayman and Ibrahim.

“Mister Omar has done so much for the community of Yellow Springs,” said Sulayman Chappelle, 19, one of the academy’s most decorated players.

“He was the only one looking out for some of these kids (whose) parents really weren’t even looking out for them, to be honest. And just making sure that they had something to do that was positive on a daily basis and giving them values.”

Some of those values included being a respectful, well-rounded person, Chappelle said. They also learned valuable skills such as tying a tie and giving a good handshake.

After the first three years, Durrani left Ohio to get an MBA at Florida International University in Miami. He settled in the Sunshine State, eventually getting married and having a daughter.

He was persuaded to return, however, at Sulayman Chappelle’s urging.

“That began a whole new world,” Durrani said. “I’m video-calling my students, now. ... And then Sulayman is having Friday-night chess sleepovers. Pizza and chess at the Chappelle house!”

In 2018 and ’19, Durrani’s team of students — including the Chappelles — won first place at the Queen City Classic Chess Tournament. Held in Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium, it is billed as one of the largest scholastic chess tournaments in the Midwest.

Durrani wants to become a global specialist for introducing chess to children.

“If they learn the Mister Omar methodology, it’s going to keep a flame of chess passion that will be lifelong,” Durrani said. “I believe that is something that God has gifted me.”