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Wilmington chess aficionado wins Swim with the Sharks

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Jayvon Fairman-Davis plays chess with a student from Leap of Faith Childcare Center in Wilmington. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CRAIG HITCHENS

WILMINGTON — When Jayvon Fairman-Davis was growing up in Wilmington, he didn’t think about how the love of chess he cultivated as a pre-teen could propel him to success. He was just grateful to have found a safe—and playfully competitive—way to spend time with friends.

“Here in Wilmington, crime is high and hope is low. That’s a real thing,” the 24-year-old entrepreneur said. “Nobody can help your community like you can, even if it’s from afar. I chose to do it here.”

Fairman-Davis’s plan to share that love and his extensive knowledge of the game with future generations of local students through Chess Express Kids was so well-strategized that he was awarded the $10,000 grand prize in this year’s ninth annual Swim with the Sharks Pitch Competition. The contest is a “Shark Tank-style” competition hosted by the Emerging Enterprise Center, a nonprofit business incubator, with support from the New Castle County Office of Economic Development’s NCC Innovates initiative, the Delaware Small Business Development Center, the Delaware Division of Small Business, the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce and community sponsors.

“Chess really drove me to this point: The chess express to success,” Fairman-Davis said playfully, admitting that he was in shock when he found out he had won. Fairman-Davis has been playing chess since he was 12, and started coaching others just a few years later. He’s also a two-time national chess champion coach.

But Chess Express Kids isn’t exactly all about chess, Fairman-Davis said during his winning pitch. The real goal of his business is to provide underserved children with the skills taught through chess: patience, confidence, strategy, critical thinking and new perspectives.

Currently, Chess Express Kids has just a handful of clients, and Fairman-Davis plans to use some of the $10,000 in prize money to hire four more instructors and scale his community-focused endeavour. In his pitch, Fairman-Davis said the ultimate goal is to go global, and that he hopes to move toward success by signing up 12 schools for chess lessons in a year’s time. But he can’t teach them all himself.

Even though he’s been in operation for 1.5 years so far, Fairman-Davis said he’s already been inspired by the impact that a checkered board with 32 pieces can have on young minds.

“It shows that kids have a mind that’s so expansive,” he said, recalling a 5-year-old who was watching the game and quickly figured out what the different pieces do and how they move. “They’re sponges and they’ll pick it up and enjoy it.”

Fairman-Davis said that both the popular chess-centric Netflix series, “The Queen’s Gambit,” and the COVID-19 lockdown have likely helped chess gain new followers in recent years: 42 million hours of chess has been watched on the streaming site Twitch since the show’s debut in 2020, he said during his pitch.

Fairman-Davis said he hopes his business not only continues a legacy of Black educators building up their peers and communities, like those educators who first taught him to play the game, but also provides underprivileged and underrepresented children in Delaware and beyond with an opportunity to learn a unique skill set they may not otherwise receive.

In addition to the $10,000 cash prize, Fairman-Davis’s winning pitch earned him thousands of dollars in professional memberships, business training, digital tools and free advertising and marketing opportunities.

Meanwhile, mechanical engineers Jose A. Salazar and Luis Marin Enetor, co-founders of the technology start-up Enetor, won the competition’s $1,500 “People’s Choice Award.” For more information or to watch the competition that aired Nov. 3, go to eecincubator.com/swim-with-the-sharks.

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