"A game of chess is like a sword fight," says RZA. He's echoing the exact same kung-fu movie sample on Wu-Tang track "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'" from the group's 1993 debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Best known for producing that seminal hip-hop group, composing film soundtracks for Kill Bill and and acting in films like American Gangster, the 38 year-old RZA started playing chess when he was 11 years-old. It wasn't until the last three years he started taking the game seriously after getting his butt kicked in Washington Square Park games. "Other players were talking about chess game theory or books on chess," recalls RZA. "I had no idea there were books on chess." RZA boned up on the game's intricacies and became fascinated with its history. "I learned about all the great players — like Fischer and Kasparov."
Whether it be table top games like chess or video games, RZA is a long-time gamer. "I used play more video games," he says. "Like if I started playing Madden football, I'd end up playing all night long. I was addicted to them, man!" Current favorites include Harmonix's Rock Band. While hanging out with buddy Russell Crowe in Australia, RZA and co. would trash out virtual licks and belt out tunes on this rock band music sim. "Man after playing it for four hours straight," he recalls, "I had to get home — but Rusty and his friends kept playin' for maybe another four hours. A bunch of guys in their 30s and 40s pretending they're rock stars." As the game's developer (and Kotaku readers) will vouch, this is nothing abnormal! "Oh yes, stories like this are the norm," says Harmonix Music Systems CEO Alex Rigopulos. "I don't have real data about how long people play in a typical session — though I have lived through a session that started on a Friday night and didn't end until Monday morning..."
"I love the Wii too," says RZA. "I love Wii Bowling, Wii Boxing, Wii Tennis, Wii whatever." On Sundays, the rapper sneaks in a few games on Nintendo's innovative Wii console, which is perfect for easy pick-up-and-play titles. "Wii makes it easy for everyone to play video games, regardless of how old they are or their level of gaming experience," says Denise Kaigler, Nintendo of America's vice president of Corporate Affairs. "It also gets people from different generations playing together." Hip hop superstars, too.
While rappers like 50 Cent lend their likeness to video games, back in 1999, Wu-Tang was one of the first hip hop acts to churn out its own video game with PlayStation 1 title Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style. The clan kung-fu their way through the 36 chambers, aiming to save martial arts teacher Master Xin. The special edition of the game even featured its own special Wu-Tang W logo shaped controller! While getting mixed reviews, Shaolin Style did open the flood gates for for other hip-hop games like the Def-Jam fighting franchise with everyone from Public Enemy to Busta Rhymes. "I'm really proud of the 'Wu-Tag' game," says RZA. "I'd love to make another one if given the chance."
Forget fighting video games for a moment. Or video games, for that matter. "Chess is a way of being aggressive without being physical. You're beating someone with your mind." And when you lose, RZA points out, you feel it — someone defeated your intellect. While mixing his new album Digi Snacks, RZA would kill break-time with games of chess. "Let's say I've got an eight hour recording sessions," the rapper says. "Four hours of that is downtime." Four hours of downtime means lots and lots of in studio-chess games. "This week I've probably played 50 games of chess," says RZA — on a Wednesday.
Hip-hop and chess couldn't be closer. "Chess is like battling — you know when two rappers face off," says RZA. "Both are really a flow of ideas that connect and are used to gain an advantage over the opponent." With that in mind, the Hip Hop Chess Federation makes perfect sense. Founded by author Adisa Banjoko and graffiti artist Leo "Blast" Libiran, the organization seeks to give youngsters life tools via music, martial arts and, well, chess. RZA first befriended the organizations founds a couple years back, but didn't become a full-fledged member until a year and a half ago. "The idea is that chess can spark some young minds," says RZA. "Show kids that they need to plan ahead and think." Last fall, RZA took first place in the HHCF 8 man tournament in San Francisco, which raised $10,000 in scholarship money for Bay Area schools.
This year, RZA is taking his love of chess online with WuChess. The online gaming and social networking site lets players virtually face off, create profiles, chat, join chess clans. "We're trying to show that chess isn't just for nerds or old guys in the park," the recording artist points out. So RZA, what's the difference between online chess and real chess? "It's easier to cheat."